I’m surrounded by food.
Without even turning my head I can see a variety of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, dried beans in Mason jars, potatoes, honey, pickled things, greens, onion chips, a squash, garlic, and a box of wild mushrooms.
In the drawers there’s even more garlic, more dried beans, another potato, onions, more squash, and dried peppers.
I’m not even going to open the fridge, and if I went into Gowan’s room I’m pretty sure I’d find bunches of kale hanging in her closet like bats.
Now, I’ve become accustomed to being buried in food like this, but not so long ago my sustenance options were drastically different.
Where I lived before, the only produce I ever really saw were store bought apples, some potatoes, the occasional bell pepper or cucumber, maybe a head of iceberg lettuce, and a banana or two for some variety.
The rest of my diet consisted mainly of a lot of rice…
Honestly, I’m having trouble remembering what other kind of food units were kept there, however, I’m sure they were things like Rice-A-Roni, Shake’NBake and canned soup.
While living there I was cranky, constantly tired, unmotivated, and overall unhappy, which I’m sure had something to do with the company I was in, and a lot to do with the food I was eating.
Since I moved in with Gowan, I’ve had a steady supply of love, kale and dog drool (all of which are good for the complexion, lemme tell ya.)
Seriously though, the radical changes in environment and diet have wrought some noticeable differences in my morale and behavior.
Before I’d look at kale like it was a calculus problem, and now I’m look “Oooh! Let’s put that shit in PASTA!”
If someone handed me a food I’ve never had, I probably would have tried to avoid eating it, but now I’d bite into it without hesitation.
My skin’s gotten clearer, I can focus more easily, I feel alert within five or so minutes of waking up, I have more energy…
I know that last sentence sounded like a promotion for Five Hour Energy, but if I’m promoting anything, it’d be kale.
Kale, kale, kale.
Also, my ability to keep my mouth shut and play nice with others has, well, come into existence.
Yeah, before I really wasn’t good at that.
Anyway, my entire point here is that that green stuff that grows from the ground, and all of the fantastic people and animals that come with it, have made a hugely positive impact on every part of me, from the way my body feels to the way I look at life.
I’ve never been so thankful for vegetables.
We are two days away from the New Year and I am relatively unprepared. The last two weeks have given me just enough time to clean out my pantry and binge on a bunch of things that I don’t normally eat anyway, just for the sake of it. In between ice cream sundaes, corn chips and bananas with peanut butter, I have been doing mental pushups to get ready for the year ahead because it’s too late to do all the things I wish I had done months ago. It is most inconvenient to start a project like this in the middle of winter. But, I’ve got daffodils blooming in my front yard right now and a lot of other things are growing right now, too. Still, I cannot help regretting all of the summer & fall fruits and roots that I have not stored or fermented, all the mushrooms I have not picked & dried, and the salt that I have not been collecting. Oh, god. Salt. It’s going to be like gold this year.
I snapped these pictures of my well-stocked cupboard and beloved tea collection before I gave everything away for Christmas. As I empty my shelves and my refrigerator, I am acutely aware of all that we could have done. But the truth is, I’m not worried. No matter how much we prep, we are never ready for the unpredictability of life. There are always a million reasons not to do something, and more time doesn’t mean I would ever feel that I had done enough. To me it all comes down to the simple fact that we have to start where we are, with what we have.
“You cannot manifest what you want. You can only manifest what you already have.” – Eckhart Tolle
When I heard this the other day, I felt it in my bones. I know that we already have everything we need. In the coming year, we will make visible the abundance that already exists. All of the pieces are here, and there is no place for fear.
I keep this in mind as I look around my cozy little apartment and take inventory of what I do have: an impossible kitchen that is no larger than two bathtubs, a jillion mason jars of various sizes, two crock pots, two Cuisinarts, a Champion juicer and a VitaMix blender and a bunch of “homesteady” cookbooks. I have cheesecloth, a bunch of freezer storage bags, sprouting screens and a big jug for storing fresh water that I collect from a local spring. I also have a pathological distaste for washing dishes, which I will have to conquer this year.
I look outside and I find myself in one of the most magnificent places in the world. I look at the Pacific Ocean from my window, and I trust that she will feed us. I am going to have to establish a better relationship with her first. I love walking on the beach, harvesting shells and driftwood and seaweed and watching the waves change color, but I have a thing about cold water, and so does Gowan. I told her that we need to begin this year with a symbolic polar bear swim, as sort of a peace offering. As soon as the winter waves calm down, we’re plunging. Also, we need wetsuits.
We are surrounded by the forest, and we have rivers, mountains, valleys and lakes. We also have shovels and lot of chutzpah. We live in an incredibly biodiverse region which has historically produced enough food to be food-secure, and still could. We live in an GMO-free county, with a number of inspired farmers and ranchers – young and young at heart – who know how to do this. We have plenty.
Last night while we were making dinner with the mushrooms we foraged, two friends surprised us with gifts of blackberry honey wine, perfectly ripened persimmons and roasted bay nuts and… sea salt! This is how the pantry will be filled – little by little, day by day, with the help of others. The land alone is not enough. And I know that this is not “our” project; we’re just doing one little piece. The great mycelium that connects us all is what will make this possible – and our survival literally depends on you. And you. And you. So, get ready to learn/cook/laugh with us!
Some thoughts on my former too-extreme version of this project and some speculation on how we’ll adapt this year:
When I faced down actually doing this I found I had to change some major ways I had interacted with food for most of my adult life. At times this was awesome, and created a sense of connection, ritual, and deep gratitude. At other times it was fussy, annoying and exhausting. My first attempt actually was immediately set back by a bad flu that left me unable to do the planning and preparation that make this work. Green tea and raw fish, my go-to for any illness, were too much of a draw and I didn’t have the resources and community to find alternatives. Of course, I also hadn’t really told anyone about my project. I had this idea that if I tried it and no one knew, success or failure would be dependent on myself only, instead of peer pressure or a need to meet expectations. Also I was stupid scared.
…Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing you need buddies for. So my first try failed immediately.
I got back on the horse and after some serious caffeine and grain withdrawals I actually got into a rhythm that worked. It worked so well, I went ahead and kept it going. Then life got complex. In a very large way. I became the guardian of a kid. So for a while this project, and my plan to phase all the way into it by January to do a whole year, got put on the back burner. But the kid, being a rockstar, is not an obstacle to pulling this off at all. And as the stores of dry beans, winter squash, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes piled up in the kitchen and cabinets I began to really want to not miss this chance. Ironically, one of my initial thoughts about this project was that I should do it now, even though I don’t have as much land as hopefully I will have one day, or as many animals, because if I had a kid it would be much harder. Well. Never say these things where the universe might hear you. What it means for us is that our household will probably not be 100% local. I am a cruel mother who makes her child shovel goat poop on a near daily basis, but I am not so unkind as to ban Nutella. Since I will be eating 100% locally, and we eat together, this will be a journey for her as well. Maybe I’ll even con her into writing about it a bit.
We’ll be eating from the whole county, and while we’ll try to focus on trade, foraging, and growing our own, we will use money when its appropriate. I went a month without cooking oil because, while I knew farmers made olive oil inland, I didn’t know any of them well enough to ask to barter. I also was too shy and too embarrassed by my own audacity to tell people about what I was doing and ask for help. Sarah does not have this problem. Outreach will be the least of our worries, and hopefully we’ll avoid some of the things that made it physically tough on me the first time around.
In which I discuss food and my body in potentially gross ways:
I work a lot. Between the plants, the animals, the kids, volunteers, restaurants, cafeterias, planning and maintenance I have a lot of moving parts going at any given point. Confessing some bad habits, I have been a habitual breakfast skipper. Eating in the morning has made me violently nauseous since puberty, no doubt my uterus’s vengeance for managing to have a kid without her, since it seems to fluctuate with my cycle. I have had coffee with milk and called it a meal for basically my whole adult life, excepting a few years of veganism. Yes, this is shameful. And then I start working, and between every need that all these things have, its like getting sucked into a quickly moving stream. Usually when it spits me out the day has passed, and I’m starving. So I eat a shocking amount of food and pass out. Not the healthiest of patterns! I’m young, active, and have a fast metabolism. I can go through food in a serious way, and I’m pretty much always hungry. But my patterns of eating haven’t always been that aware or self-loving.
This project forced me to change that. I still started the day with tea, made from lavender and mint from my garden, but I found that I had to eat something in the morning or in the evening I wouldn’t have the energy left for cooking everything from scratch and what should be a blissful, cozy process would become a death match between my calorie deprived brain versus the stove.
I also had to plan. I had to make extra food at dinner and save it for lunch the next day, I had to think about things far in advance, and re-learn the skills that were second nature to all our grandmas, like remembering to put beans in to soak before bed. I’ve never been that much of a cook or very domestic- I’m great with mud and tools, not so much with the kitchen. I now have infinitely more respect for the work that it takes.
There is a reason why traditional farms had cooks! After the work outside all day, there is a whole new day of work to be done inside: shelling beans, sterilizing jars, slicing veggies for the dehydrator, minding the various cultures. I felt a very serious need for a housewife. And also a sort of shame about my attitude about that work up to that point. I had rejected traditional gender roles so much in my life that I had internalized some negative crap. Which I had to get right over, since when I came in muddy and bruised and tired I had to basically get cleaned up and go back to work.
My body adapted in some interesting ways. My digestion went into hyperdrive. My stomach is now basically an incinerator- I could get nutrients out of eating brick, seriously. Getting rid of wheat had a huge effect on me. I felt more alert, my sex drive went way up, and my skin got clearer. Raw goat dairy, I found, didn’t give me the stomach ache that pasteurized cow milk always had.
I had a serious protein issue, however.
I had 15 chicks peeping in a brooder, but only their adopted mama, an elderly banty silkie by the name of Gwennie, was mature enough to lay eggs. To my amazement, apparently unaware that she was not, in fact, a production breed and was also old, Gwennie laid reliably enough for me to have an egg about every other day. I also had fava beans, and goat milk from a sweet Dwarf Nigerian belonging to the family of one of my Summer Youth Interns. I had to get creative.
A bunch of interns came from families that kept animals. I started charging a dozen eggs for late essays. And also assigning more essays. My friend Tim, a fisherman, graciously agreed to give me the heads and backs of fish he had caught. From this amazing protein source, usually thrown away, I made rich stock that I simmered kale and carrots in. The flood of fat and protein to my brain after a week with barely any is something I will always remember.
This time around, we will have chicken eggs, quail eggs, my goat Mandy is pregnant so we will have milk from her, plus a cow share and milk from the goat’s of friends, duck eggs for Sarah from Ukiah, and a wealth of local resources for protein, plus all the many varieties of vegetables we produce here. It’ll be luxurious.
I also found that my taste changed a lot, especially how I perceived sweetness. It was really shocking how quickly that happened, within about three weeks of giving up sugar and living without processed food, I started tasting sugar so profoundly in vegetables. My kale, which was not at its sweetest in the warm fall, tasted like candy. Tree collards are unbelievably sugary. I also got a lot more sensitive to subtle tastes and scents.
Note about weight:
I think we’ll probably spend a lot of time this year talking about how we feel and how our bodies react to the food we’re eating, because well, food is our bodies. Its pretty hard to separate those things. I want to make clear on my part, though, that I don’t see this as a diet plan. I did lose weight the first time around, but because I didn’t know what I was doing and my body wasn’t always getting what it needed. Different people have different metabolisms, and fat does not automatically equal unhealthiness, nor thinness health. A friend of mine told me he thought I would probably gain weight on this diet- at which point I’m pretty sure I stuck my butt out and made a comment about the “fat of the land” but that’s kinda beside the point.
Bodies. They are okay. No part of this is about a desire to change the shape of my body, and the shape of yours will never be my business.
Yes, it changed social interactions.
Food is community, always has been. It takes people to grow it, people to cook it, and people to eat it. Suddenly being involved in a rather extreme diet choice did change how I interacted with people. I have amazing friends, and there were some awesome dinner parties, and in most of their fridges at any given time there’s something I could eat. But the ability to spontaneously decide to get food with someone was gone, and the awkwardness of attending social gatherings and feeling like I was being a prima donna or unnecessarily fussy kept me a bit isolated. Of course, my close friends caught on quickly and didn’t let me be a curmudgeon. My friend simon even made sure there were amazing treats that were scrupulously local so I wasn’t left out of a tea party- even local tea.
This social element is I think the biggest change that will come with this year, and with doing this with a partner. The Farm to Table dinner series Sarah has been organizing with a team of local people are in themselves an awe-inspiring testament to the local food scene here, and I predict some really awesome times ahead. Even the simple act of logging what we’ve been eating in the days up to the start has had a huge effect on how I feel about this project- solidarity is powerful.
Having sacrificed my body figuring out how to do this, and having way more resources, a wonderful community, and a great deal more basic common sense, I feel like we’re really well prepared. I think we’ll need to make more time for cooking, planning, and storing food, but I also think that we will be nourished by that process if we stay up on it enough that we don’t get swamped. And I also think that when we inevitably do at times, we will have hands to help us.
As the rain pounds down outside, I’ve been in the greenhouse seeding flats. We’ll be well taken care of, and so will anyone else who comes by.
I’m a small farmer- a micro farmer really.
I manage a non-profit farm to school market garden. We have just about two acres, which are laid out incredibly inefficiently, have hard clay soil with no drainage, a north facing slope, and buildings sited to fully embrace every bit of the wind that comes whipping off of the ocean less than a mile away. And we feed people.
We feed a lot of people.
We can feed everyone.
We grow food for four school cafeterias, three local restaurants, the hospital lunch program, Safe Passage’s cooking classes when they are in session, and we donate to the food bank, we have a summer booth at the farmer’s market, and we just started attending the fledgling winter market in Caspar. And it’s good stuff, and there’s lots of it.
My initial idea to do this project came about from reading somewhere, I think in Grist, about a critique of locavore culture as classist and unrealistic. I actually really agree- the popular image of local organic food is of an upper class white woman in organic bamboo yoga pants paying $20 for a salad. And we certainly love and feed her and her kin. But we also feed local school kids, about 70% of whom qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. And we feed sick people in the hospital. And people who have to wait in line at the Food Bank. And people bringing their food stamps to the market. This land can feed all of us, and we all have a place in the garden.
There are huge problems with access to fresh local food for people. Especially people who live in cities, people who are not white, and people with disabilities and seniors. Large scale monoculture, which promised to feed the world, has not made any of these issues go away and if anything has made them much worse. Fresh food that grows in your community should logically be cheaper than food grown thousands of miles away, packaged and shipped and stored. All of these steps add labor and fuel and costs. But due to subsidies and economy of scale, and yes, a culture of privilege, this hasn’t been the case yet. I charge more than Safeway and I’m not making bank.
I fully acknowledge these issues and that I live in a position of extreme privilege to get up in the morning and greet my sweet sleepy goats. I gave up everything for this privilege, but the fact remains.
I really believe we have the tools to fix these problems and that we can start by growing food where we are. We also need massive social and legislative changes, and people to work on policy- like overthrowing laws that don’t allow people to grow food in their yards, and getting former Monsanto employees out of the USDA and FDA. This is all big important stuff. But the immediate reality is that we live in a world where despite the unbelievable abundance of the earth, which showers us in riches if we give it half a chance, we have this exploitative, cruel, inhumane food system. Bad for the soil, bad for the water, bad for the animals, bad for the farmers, bad for the people. And us tiny guys are dismissed as at best a cute gesture, at worst a fad and a fashion statement.
I am many things, but cute and fashionable? Not so much.
I wanted to make a serious gesture about food. I knew I could do it, I also knew it wouldn’t be entirely comfortable. I decided to live entirely off of my land and what I could trade with other farmers for a month. If I could do that, I would do it for a year, and leading up into January, I would wean myself off of all processed food, and all non-local food.
What I learned is that I still love fava beans after the millionth meal. And that its totally possible and even blissful with planning and commitment. I also began to learn so much more about who is living here in Mendocino county, and the unbelievable abundance in this place. It began to be less about an austere example of how human life can be sustained on a postage stamp, and began to be more about connections and community. I believe that by pooling resources everyone can do this. We happen to live in paradise, but I’m also hoping that some of what we learn could be applied to less hospitable environments like cities.
When Sarah and I talked about doing this together as a celebration of Mendocino county it was like all the pieces clicked into place. This beautiful powerhouse of a human being is able to make the connections and reveal the beauty that surrounds us. I’m handy with a shovel. We are going to have a great time this year. And by expanding our diet off of my land alone and into the rest of our community, we can show the true nature of local sustainable agriculture, which is an intricate web of people, plants and animals. We can’t do any of this without all of us.
But we can totally do it.
Two days ago, Gowan stopped by my house to pick up my lemon tree to keep it safe from the winter frost. She mentioned that it was only a couple of weeks away from the New Year – a year of eating local. I said, “Oh, are you still doing that?” She replied, “I want to.” In the midst of baking chocolate brownies, I said, almost automatically,
“Maybe I should do it with you.”
One day later, my head is exploding with how this experiment in eating locally could connect so many of the dots that we’ve been working on for a long time, and bring the conversation about local food in Mendocino County to the next level. By the time we speak that afternoon, I have brainstormed a full media plan and I am already starting to think about what I won’t be able to eat. We talk. We talk some more. She likes my ideas, I love hers. She’s a farmer and an artist and I am an idea mill, connector and media lover. This could be big. It will be big, based on the feat alone. Perhaps it could also be big for other people, and makes some big things happen here in Mendocino County. I’m in.
As soon as I get off the phone, I go for a walk and head directly to Frankie’s Ice Cream for a scoop of Candy Cap Mushroom goodness. Because now that it’s real, I will start doing all of the things that I won’t be able to do in less than two weeks (the mushrooms are local and so is the milk, and it’s made locally, but… it’s not 100% local). I take my ice cream and head toward the beach. Along the way, a homeless guy shouts from the bus stop, “Has anyone told you that you’re beautiful today?” Nope. “Well, you are.” I take this as a good sign. Compliments from strangers are always a good sign. It’s way too cold for ice cream and I can hardly taste it, but I am really happy. Walking along the headlands, with the winter waves crashing against the rocks I am feeling this great convergence.
Anything is possible here. I have always believed that. This project (yet to be named) would be living, vibrant proof of the abundance that exists in the world. I am liking what this will look like – how the days will be spent, the people that will be involved, and – yes – the food that will be eaten. As I head home, I pick some Portuguese kale that grows wild on the headlands – it’s time to start.
In some ways this will be life as usual, and it will also involve some major changes. This excites me, and I spread my arms out like wings, walking into the chill wind. Also, I’m not at all worried about the ice cream, we can make as much of that as we want.