Diary of a Locavore
Is it possible to eat nothing but local food in a New Mexico winter?
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, March 6, 2008
Eggs, milk, peanuts. It didn’t look good.
I had spent the last hour scavenging the isles of La Montañita Co-op, and that’s what I was left with: eggs, milk, peanuts. I was hungry just looking at them. I offered my meager basket to the cashier, pausing to turn around and grab a hauntingly aromatic chocolate chip cookie from the deli counter behind me. If all I had to eat for the next seven days were eggs, whole milk and peanuts, I was going to enjoy my last meal, and I was going to have dessert.
I watched the clock on my cell phone strike midnight, rubbing my fingers together to erase the chocolate from their tips. This was it. For the next week, I would eat only food grown in New Mexico. In the middle of February, I knew it would be difficult. But when I opened my fridge door and saw two cartons and a bag of nuts staring back at me, I wondered if it was even possible. Preparing myself for starvation, I trundled off to bed. Tomorrow I was going “shopping.”
We Are What We Eat
“Locavore” has become somewhat of a linguistic celebrity. The term won the prestige of being named the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2007 Word of the Year. At only two years old, it’s handily worked its way to the top.
A San Franciscan named Jessica Prentice coined "locavore" at World Environment Day in June 2005. The intention of the word was to refer to someone who seeks out food grown within a 100-mile radius of where he or she lives, and it was invented with a purpose: to call attention to the efforts of four women who would strive that summer to eat nothing but food grown within that limit of the Bay Area for a month. They extended the challenge to others and have continued to do so since, developing a website (www.locavores.com) that acts as a resource for those who wish to live the bumper sticker mantra: Eat Local.
Locavorism is spreading. Time Magazine and the New York Times have dedicated top headlines to the trend. Two books that explore ideas of eating locally—Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—both jumped to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists soon after their releases in the last two years. “Locavore” is in the national consciousness, and it makes sense why.
In a cultural climate thick with concerns over global warming, fuel economy and, that increasingly convoluted term, sustainability, it’s natural that as a nation we would start to think about how those things relate to the food we eat. Food is one of our most basic needs. As plants suck nutrients out of the soil they root in, so we absorb not only the proteins and amino acids but also the environmental, economic and political connotations of the food we digest. We are what we eat—as individuals, and as a culture.
People are exchanging incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, gas guzzlers for hybrids, conventional for organic—why wouldn’t they exchange food grown in and shipped from Argentina for something that comes from their own backyard, or their neighbor’s? Ideologically, it’s a superior way to eat. Realistically, it’s a long way from being easy.
Day One: The Kindness of Strangers
I have a tall glass of milk for breakfast. I’m lucky New Mexico is one of the largest dairy producers in the country; it allows me to be selective and choose a brand produced as close to my house as possible: Rasband, which is made in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
My original motive was to limit my diet to food grown only within the city. But the task proves daunting in the desert in the middle of winter, especially for a vegetarian. After my trip to the Co-op, I decided to expand my allowed range. I found a huge number of food produced by local companies waiting in the isles—everything from bread to jam to locally made frozen tamales—the problem is they weren’t made with local ingredients. There’s a big difference between supporting local businesses and eating local food—and one’s distinctively easier than the other. If even the salt in a loaf of bread, or the sugar in raspberry jam, was non-local, it was off limits. And so after combing the ingredient lists on products marked with a big, orange “local” sticker and finding select few foods I could actually eat, I figured I would need to breach Albuquerque limits to survive. By the end of my Co-op search, I decided anything grown within New Mexico would be allowed, with preference given to foods that stemmed closer to home.
Yesterday’s trip was just preparation for today. I hoped to find a hardy reserve of food at the Co-op, the store I figured would have the highest volume of local food (I was correct in my assumption). With such a low yield, I was depending on my mission today: finding victuals from Corrales growers.
The Corrales Growers’ Market only operates once a month in the winter instead of weekly, as it does in the summer, and most of the food available this time of year comes in the form of dried herbs. Fresh fruits and vegetables are unheard of in February, except for the yield of one grower, Rob Hays, who has a greenhouse and puts together an awesome salad mix with dill, mustard greens and eight different kinds of lettuce. I’m told there’s usually a mad rush for beans in the fall, and most are gone by November. I’ve heard legend of local flour, but I’ve looked in all the natural food stores in town and can’t find any. (I’ll finally discover some organic, unbleached, whole wheat local flour lurking in the bulk bins at the Co-op on Day Four, but so far it’s escaped me.) Rations are low.
I decided to try my experiment in this barren time of year for a reason. If eating local is going to expand beyond the definition of a trend and become a societal shift, it needs to be doable any time of year. If I could find local food to eat in February, I could do it year-round.
I found a connection to Corrales growers through Anita Walsh, who coordinates the Corrales Growers’ Market. Walsh raises and dries a myriad of herbs (sold under the label “Anita’s Herbs”), and her boyfriend harvests honey from some 160,000 bees in hives they have in their yard. I meet Walsh at Evelyn Losack’s apple farm, along with lavender grower and soap maker Mary Jane Rodriguez, where I’m served my second meal of the day: apple cider and apple butter.
The three ladies ask me if I’m hungry. They know what I’m about to attempt, and the worry shows in their actions. Losack keeps pushing the apple butter in my direction.
Losack is like a living piece of Corrales history. Her family has been in the area for six generations: Her father helped establish the village library. She helped start the growers’ market. Her spine is crooked and she uses ski poles to navigate her way around her property—after her husband passed four years ago it’s just her on the farm—but she still manages to harvest, process and preserve the massive amount of apples her trees bear every year.
We make our way out to the storage shed in the back of her property, where she loads me with cider, apple jerky, apple chips and a dozen mixed varieties she’s saved from the fall harvest. They’re puckering now and better for cooking with than munching on, but in the state of slow hunger that’s starting to swell through me, they look like a dream. Walsh gives me dried tarragon, alfalfa and some of her boyfriend’s honey. Arm stinging from the weight of the food they’ve just given me, I feel a deeper sense of connection to it. When I drink this cider, I’ll think of Losack ski-poling her way across her farm.
From Losack’s, the rest of my shopping trip is stream-of-consciousness. I’m directed to Rob Hays’ place, where I pick up mixed greens, more eggs (after meeting the 11 hens that laid them) and a sack full of frozen corn, peaches and green chile Rodriguez has dropped off for me. After that I’m ordered to Bob Johnston’s house—whose gate flaunts a sign reading “Trespassers will be beheaded”—who delivers with frozen blackberries, cherries and apples from the fall harvest, along with a couple onions that are growing green shoots but still look good enough to eat.
By now the sun is setting and I still have to drive into the Sandias to retrieve Donna Lockridge and Marge Petersen’s personal frozen reserves of goat milk, goat yogurt and goat feta from their South Mountain Dairy. I’ve still only consumed milk, apple butter and cider today, so I rush home to scramble some of my newly acquired eggs, washed down with another glass of milk, before I head east.
Lockridge and Petersen’s girls (their nickname for their 56 goats) don’t produce milk in the winter. This time of year is like a hibernation for their company, which sells enough the rest of the year to make up for it. I can’t find their products in stores right now, so I’m lucky they’re willing to part with some of their stash. Considering the amount of frozen food I gathered today, I realize how necessary it is to have a large freezer if one plans to eat locally year-round.
Finding groceries took me all day, and I still only have select ingredients—nothing to make a complete meal with. I never would have found what I did without making connections with local growers. Heading home, tired, stomach aching, I feel unbearably grateful to those who planned ahead this year—I am, in the truest sense, relying on the kindness of strangers.
“Cheap and Convenient”
How well do you know what you’re eating? According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the average meal on an American’s plate has traveled 1,500 miles to get there. It’s the kind of number that makes you wonder what would happen if the transportation lines that bring us the food on that plate were severed. Until the last century, people have relied on food grown close to home for survival. Now creating a single meal out of nothing but local ingredients, unless it’s summer, is challenging, or sensually disappointing.
Eating local does make a difference. First and most obviously, it supports the local economy, recycling more dollars into your own community. Most of the time, it also supports small, independent business. But it also makes a difference in terms of food security. Eric Garretson, director of the Downtown Growers’ Market and board member for the New Mexico Farmers’ Markets Association, believes fervently in the practice and philosophy of knowing where our food comes from. He asks how sustainable a city can be if it doesn’t have a local food source.
“We’re importing more right now than we’ve ever imported around the world,” he says. “As a country, we don’t need to import much at all. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we take care of the rest of the world?”
But taking care of ourselves is demanding. Even Garretson, whose diet is up to 75 percent local in the summer (and only about 25 percent in the winter, he says), has to supplement his philosophy with imported food. Finding a purist locavore is a rare thing, and it’s not hard to understand why. Eating locally means not eating out. All food has to be prepared at home. If you don’t have energy to cook one night, it means you’re hungry the next day. It also requires extensive planning: growing your own food; frequenting growers’ markets; tailoring your diet around what’s available and in season; freezing, dehydrating, pickling and preserving surplus to last through the winter. It means turning your back on the comforts of technology and globalization and returning to simpler roots. It means forsaking the American dogma of “cheap and convenient” and endorsing a more difficult but ultimately more valuable food system. Is it worth it?
Day Five: The Land of Milk and Honey
I have discovered a new form of hunger. It’s as though my body has given up on trying to warn me that it needs nutrients. Sharp pangs have dissolved into a constant, tired ache. I get lost for minutes in daydreams about breakfast burritos. The little food I have seems so precious I lick my spoons dry.
I accumulated a few more ingredients in the last four days: a jar of peanut butter I overlooked in my first trip to the Co-op, made from nothing but roasted peanuts from Portales; hothouse tomatoes from Alcade; basil grown in Albuquerque; and the most exciting gift I’ve received thus far: a baggie of mixed dried beans from Los Lunas and Albuquerque. Garretson brought me the beans, and I never knew I could experience such exhilaration from so simple a token. I actually skipped around the office as I called out to my coworkers that I had in my possession beans, glorious beans.
But cooking the treasure I’d acquired turned disastrous. I’m unfortunately one of those people who can’t stand the taste of raw tomatoes, although I love them cooked, so I decided to make an easy marinara sauce with one of the onions I’d gotten from Bob Johnston and some old garlic I picked up from Los Poblanos Organics farm in Los Ranchos. But the onion and garlic were too old, foul-smelling, and local salt was nowhere to be found. The simmering tomato sauce exuded a pungent, stinging odor, and I tossed it. I later tried roasting tomatoes with the tarragon Anita Walsh gave me and basil. The end result was tasty, although still a little too tomato-y for my liking, but once the tomatoes cooked down there was hardly enough meat left in them to make a dent in my appetite.
I cooked the beans, but naively believed the instructions I found online that said I only needed to soak them for four hours before cooking them. When the required cooking time had ended and the beans still seemed tough, I left them simmering longer to soften them. But I forgot to add more water to the pot and left them on for too long. The product was charred, slightly crunchy beans. I ate a cup’s worth with some Bueno frozen red chile I’d found, but the chile wasn’t enough to make them palatable.
My failed attempts at cooking land me with little to eat, although the hunger is punctuated with divine moments of revelation. On Day Two I defrosted Bob Johnston’s blackberries. Eating them at my desk, deep purple juice that would stain my palms dribbling down my fingers, I felt like a bear. I laughed as I tried to keep viscous rivulets from splashing on the proofing boards in front of me. Knowing that these berries would usually be forbidden by the elements this time of year, they seemed a magical, freak occurrence. I noticed every sweet, perfect orb.
This visceral experience was followed by a less passionate but still scintillating meal on Day Four, when I scattered remaining berries and a handful of crumbly cow feta I found at the Co-op over some greens I got from Rob Hays and Eric Garretson. This salad remains the only true meal of my week so far—and the first bite was a comfort I can’t describe.
The majority of my calories are coming from my staples of peanut butter, honey and milk. Peanut butter is miraculous with nine grams of protein in two tablespoons. Without it, I’m afraid I’d melt away. But I’m drinking so much milk, water is starting to assume its taste. I can’t believe I still have two more days of this.
Local vs. Organic
The American diet is evolving. If you can’t tell from the organic section at your supermarket or the all-natural Newman’s Own dressing served at Wendy’s, surely you can see it in the surge in natural food stores like Whole Foods across the country. Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that organic food has already created an $11 billion market—it’s a symptom of a yearning for change in our national food landscape. So where does locavorism fit in?
“Local food, as opposed to organic, implies a new economy as well as a new agriculture—new social and economic relationships as well as new ecological ones,” Pollan writes. “It’s a lot more complicated.”
With the rise of locavorism comes the question over which food trend is more important: local or organic? The answer shifts depending on who you ask.
“I just think the eating local movement is a little narrow in its vision. I can point to some horrendous food that’s locally grown.” These are the words of Jo Robinson, founder of Eatwild.com, a seven-year-old site with steadily growing name recognition—garnering an average of more than 5,000 unique visitors a day. “Just because it’s local, it doesn’t mean the animals are being treated well. It’s part of the solution, but as the single criteria, it falls short.”
Robinson, a freelance investigative journalist, started Eatwild in 2001 with the purpose of chronicling all the suppliers of grass-fed meat and dairy products in the country. When the site launched, it listed 49 farms. Now it details more than 1,000, with 11 in New Mexico—a testament to the strength of the movement to eat more conscientiously.
Robinson believes the quality of the food produced outweighs the benefits of buying locally, and she’s not alone. Monte Skarsgard is the managing farmer of Los Poblanos, a cooperative organic farm that works with 15 others in the region, trading food to ensure members get weekly delivered rations. Skarsgard gives credit to the economic benefits of buying local, but finds the argument to buy organic much stronger.
“Things that are grown locally can be harvested at the wrong time, they can be harvested and put in someone’s refrigerator for a week; and at the same time I can get some strawberries from California in two days,” he says. “After something comes off a plant, the nutrient value starts degrading.” (As a side note, Anita Walsh says the produce sold at the Corrales Growers’ Market is harvested the morning of or the night before the market.)
But when it comes to theories over nutrition, many locavores believe there are other, less tangible benefits to eating local food. Eric Garretson explains the hypothesis with the aid of an Arkansas black apple (grown in Los Lunas) he’s brought with him. “It’s not really about the nutrients. It’s how you feel you need to eat,” he says. “The energy put into growing that apple, if it was good energy, if it was done by a farmer who really cares about what’s going on—not an industrial agricultural situation where there’s just a monocrop and a farmer’s out there on a tractor not really paying attention to individual plants—but a farmer that has a small farm and is putting good, positive energy into that food, does that make a difference? You bet it makes a difference. That food is not only going to be better for you on a spiritual level but on all kinds of levels.”
Opinions on this particular debate may be varied, but one consensus that’s been reached is on the status of small-scale farmers and growers: They’re in trouble. Part of this is due the government’s lack of support for non-industrial operations (just last month, Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed a bill allocating $150,000 for a program that would have brought locally grown food into New Mexico school cafeterias, while at the same time signing a bill for $250,000 to go toward research on genetically modified green chile), and part of it’s due to the cultural attitudes toward farming.
“The stereotype is that farmers are the dumbest—the redneck-tripping-over-the-transmission-in-the-backyard, tobacco-spitting, farmer hillbilly. The old Jeffersonian idea of the sophisticated agrarian peasant, that idea is now gone,” says Joel Salatin, one of the nation’s pre-eminent grass farmers as the owner of Virginia’s Polyface Farms. Salatin raises beef, poultry, pork and eggs on his rolling acreage, and believes a healthy, diverse pasture is the key to happy animals and sustainable farming. (I had the honor of sitting down with Salatin, who was featured at length in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for a couple hours this November to talk about grass farming and the state of meat production in America. To read our conversation, look for the web exclusive next to this article.) Salatin worries about the future of that farming in the hands of the next generation, which is told by society to disdain the profession.
“I remember in high school, when I told the guidance counselor I was going to be a farmer, she would have epileptic seizures over a wasted brain,” Salatin continues. “If you’ve got any brains you’re supposed to go to town to become an attorney or an accountant or an engineer. Who are the heroes of our society now?”
Day Seven: Needs Salt
All I can think about is food. It’s 11 p.m. and I’m counting the minutes—practically the only cognitive task my brain is capable of at this point. I’m second-guessing my decision to wait until midnight to eat again. But I’ve gone six days and 23 hours, and one more won’t kill me. At least I think it won’t.
I tried cooking again in the last couple days. But without basic ingredients—salt the most critical—everything turns out slightly gross. I’ve been supplementing my diet with frozen fruit, apple products and feta, but I’m still primarily sustaining myself on milk, peanut butter and honey, as they’re calorie- and nutrient-rich. But if I have to eat one more spoonful, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to enjoy it again. I’ve reached my breaking point, and I’m mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
I’m now faced with answering a question I’m not sure how to approach: Was my experiment a success? I think it depends on how you look at it. Did I last a week of eating nothing but locally grown food? Yes. (With the heartbreaking exception of accepting an offered piece of gum on Day Six—I was a few chews in before the realization of what I just did struck me.) Did I eat a healthful, satisfying and temptation-worthy diet? Absolutely not. Do I understand more about what it would take to lead the life of a locavore? I like to think so.
I hope my experiment doesn’t discourage others from trying to localize their diets. It’s important to remember that I bulldozed into this lifestyle in the middle of February, just a couple weeks away from when the growing season will begin. In fact, Los Poblanos’ Monte Skarsgard told me he thinks it was probably the hardest week of the year to attempt such a task. This was the tail end of the year, and food was simply running out before the first spring harvest.
The only way I was able to make it through the week was due to the connections I made, which is a large part of the philosophy behind locavorism: engaging and sharing in a community. And, even though I spent my week hungry, I found that the further I delved into this community, those connections swelled into a deep reservoir of local growers. Every person I met while scavenging for food suggested five more people I should call. My one regret this week was that I didn’t have the time to contact them all—but then, I never could have.
In the summer it would be entirely possible to eat a complete, nutritious and savory diet on nothing but local food, even without the connections. And, with foresight and effort, anyone could eat a largely local diet year-round, as long as they have a large freezer and preferably a small plot of land (Eric Garretson is adamant that food can be grown year-round here at a low cost, and he has the fresh greens to prove it). Even without a ton of preparation, it’s easy to look for local labels and occasionally stop by a growers’ market. It’s the kind of voting-with-your-dollar that really makes an impact on your local environment, economy and health.
It’s past midnight and I’m driving with a friend to Federico's, an all-night Mexican drive-thru on Juan Tabo. I had my heart set on the Frontier, but it closes early now, which tonight feels incomprehensible. When we pull up to the speaker box, I order a breakfast burrito and a horchata. I’m trembling at the prospect of a meal.
We swerve into the empty parking lot next door and I rip open the foil on my burrito. Salt. I never understood how crucial it was to enjoying most food. I will always remember these first two bites of potato and tortilla. It tastes fine, but this isn’t really about flavor. I just want desperately to be full, to eat hot food. The horchata is sweet and grainy and perfect.
This was one of the longest, and in some ways most stimulating, weeks of my life. I’m happy I did it. I’m proud I did it. And I don’t ever want to do it again. Unless it’s summer.