At the culmination of the year of eating local, I was invited to write a retrospective piece for a local magazine. Due to publishing delays, they invited me to share the article with you here. This article was written in January 2014.
If you had asked me a year ago what I expected things to be like at the end of this project, I probably would have been wrong. The unknown has characterized this project from Day One. If we had known what we would endure in the roughest times, we might not have signed up for this. Similarly unknown was the profound impact of this mammoth undertaking.
For exactly one year, my fierce farmer friend Gowan Batist and I embarked on a radical plan to eat locally for one year. In the past twelve months, our siblings both married, our friends raised children, and we wed local food.
The rules were inspired and unforgiving. The goal was to eat food produced within Mendocino County, exclusively. This meant all of the raw inputs, from the grain to the oil, salt, and spices we consumed. No chocolate, no Sri Racha sauce, no coconut water, no avocados – no exceptions whatsoever. After 365 days of this extreme locavorism, I am a changed woman.
Now that the project is officially over and I am stumbling around the grocery store aisles like Encino Man, I am struggling to assimilate back into society. Everyone is wondering what post-project freedom looks like. It’s been strange. The first time I went grocery shopping, I left the store without buying anything, overwhelmed at the entirety of the experience.
The second time I went, I bought a half-gallon of organic milk. It was the first time I’d bought milk in a carton in over a year; my milk has been coming in glass mason jars, straight from the cow. Coincidentally, the cow that has been providing for us dried up the week that the project ended, and there won’t be more fresh milk until spring – or I befriend a new cow. I stood in the aisle bewildered by the fluorescent lights and bright cartons, and was surprised that the cost of milk in the store was actually the same as what I’ve been paying for fresh local milk.
Standing there I realized that I really did not want to buy that carton of organic milk. And then I wondered if that may be the most pretentious thought I’ve ever had. The point wasn’t just that the milk didn’t have the same unadulterated richness and a thick layer of cream on the top. It felt uncomfortably foreign to just go to the store and take a generic carton off the shelf. I would never know where the milk actually came from, nor where the carton would end up. These seem like inconsequential details, but they staggeringly matter to me now. I have become so intimately involved with the lifecycle of every single item that came into my kitchen for a year that I now see this carton as part of a profoundly complex and fragmented food system where the cow is separated from the consumer and the cream is separated from the milk.
I waited until there were exactly four squares of toilet paper left in my house before I forced myself to go to the grocery store again. I pondered the week-old Christmas cookies (I’d been lusting after them during the holidays) but they just didn’t look that appetizing. Most things don’t even look like food to me anymore and the ingredients lists confirm that. I came home empty handed and made improvisational butternut squash ice cream and muffins, which were delicious. I have become so accustomed to the DIY lifestyle – and it being better than anything you can buy (and cheaper) – that I think I’ve passed a point of no return.
My Cupboards Contain Multitudes
The first few months of 2013 were stark and trying. Yet, by the end of last year I was well prepared for the winter. We have become food-sourcing samurais and my fridge, freezer and pantry are fully stocked with a collection of stories in the form of foodstuffs. My shelves hold an assortment of pickled veggies, tomato sauce, peaches, grape juice and applesauce canned by neighbors and friends. From the woods, dried hedgehog, bolete and candy cap mushrooms, and roasted bay laurel nuts. From the sea, I have a collection of dried kombu, wakame and sea palm seaweeds, and some canned tuna. The spice rack holds dried bay leaves, oregano, sage, dill, cayenne peppers, lots of garlic, alongside a wedge of fresh honeycomb and Lovers Lane Farm wildflower honey. The olive oil comes from Terra Savia, the apple cider vinegar from the Apple Farm, and I fermented the red wine vinegar using Frey biodynamic wine. The tea section is comprised of wildcrafted nettle leaves, peppermint, elderberries and chamomile.
In the grain department I have whole grain rye, purple pearl barley, oats, and wheatberries, cereal mix, and Red Fife wheat flour from the Mendocino Grain Project. We helped harvest the heirloom Green Dent Oaxacan corn from Mendocino Organics, and the quinoa was cultivated at the Ecology Action garden at the Stanford Inn. The bin of speckled bayo beans from McFadden Farms couldn’t fit in my miniscule kitchen, so I stowed it in the laundry room in my building. Thankfully my neighbors are really understanding of my food sprawl – and sometimes even bake me local pies.
It took an entire County and many hands, many seeds, and many bees to fill these jars. It took two women an entire year to track down all this food, process and store it, and learn what to do with it. These are some of the most important lessons I learned in doing so.
Lesson #1 Eat whole foods.
Many people ask how I feel on the local food diet. I tell them I feel like superwoman, and that cannot be attributed to my minimalist exercise regime. Yet, I have never been physically healthier. I know it, on a cellular level. I even defied certain self-imposed dietary restrictions and began eating wheat and more fruit and honey than I would normally allow myself. What I found is that my body told me what it wanted and needed, and I listened. The seasons provide perfect balance and have a natural way of moderating excess and abundance.
I believe that most modern “diets” miss the point entirely by creating an artificial food ritual that involves constantly counting, eliminating, worrying, and encourages eating highly processed fractured foods. I believe that we have lost our intuition when it comes to food due to a highly predatory food system. I think the single best way to rediscover an intuitive relationship with nutrition is to eat more whole foods, before you go for the supplements and miracle shakes. Many chronic health issues actually disappeared this year and I was able to reintroduce gluten in moderation, eating the local heirloom grain that is delivered whole or freshly milled. Much of the contamination and degradation of our food happens in the processing and the closer we eat to the source, the more nutritional return.
Lesson #2 You don’t need a recipe.
The constantly changing flow of seasonal ingredients required nothing less than fearless improvisation on a daily basis. In a reversal of our usual relationship with a meal, we started with the available ingredients and shaped the meal accordingly. I usually start with a general concept, consult my favorite cookbooks and the all-knowing Google. Recipes served as inspiration and guidance in terms of temperature, ratios and flavor combinations, but much of our cooking was intuitive and experimental, with ingredients limited by the seasons. When I post pictures of meals online and people ask for a recipe, I often feel bewildered. Each meal is an original creation, probably imperfect, and will never be recreated in quite the same way. To me, cooking is less about the recipe than it is about the process of learning how to be resourceful and creative. Which is why I’m terrible at baking. My takeaway here is that you don’t need to be a genius in the kitchen to prepare delicious food, especially when you’re working with real, fresh, tasty ingredients). You don’t need a dishwasher either, or even an adult-sized kitchen to cook regularly (though I dream of having both when I grow up). You do need courage, and a lot of mason jars.
Lesson #3 Friends are those who feed you.
We owe our survival to the farmers, ranchers, and foragers who provided our sustenance. We can name these people off one by one, and I have come to see every food transaction as a life-giving act. To be a farmer or rancher today is an act of righteous faith. Growing real food is an investment in our collective future, and the people who choose to do so are my heroes. I can name them by the first names, and many of them have invited us into their homes, shared of their pantries, or met me on the side of the highway to give me bacon. We supported many local growers and we also received many generous gifts, from strangers and neighbors alike, of everything from home canned goods to abalone and shiitake mushrooms. Our friends fed us, and those who fed us became friends.
It is a test of a friendship to have a devout locavore around. It is an extraordinary friend who will bake you a 100% local carrot cake for your birthday (sans baking powder) because it’s what you want the most. It is a patient friend who will teach you how to can even though you’re really afraid of it. It is a generous friend who lets you take over their kitchen with your huge cooler, mobile pantry, and lots of dirty dishes every time you come for a visit. It is a gracious relative who will halt holiday preparations to help you track down a local chicken on Christmas Eve. I am beyond lucky to have many such people who tolerated my lifestyle, fed me, and made this pioneering journey more delicious and less lonely.
The Solace of Food
In reflecting on this outrageous, profound experience only a week and a half since the finish date, many of my thoughts are still lost in translation. One thing I know, for sure: this project wasn’t really about food. It’s about what we found through food. Things that I don’t want to give up, even when the rules no longer apply. What I have found is more than just how to cook spare ribs, make meringue or, bake bread. It is Intimacy. Connection. Limits. Abundance.Standing now in the freedom of the future, I find myself wanting to be home in my kitchen, stirring the milk to make yogurt, existing in the solace of food. In learning how to feed myself, I feel I learned how to truly nourish myself – which may be the greatest lesson of all.
As the seasons go, winter leads to spring and our endeavor will not end with the calendar year, but transition into a new beginning. Living and eating with the seasons is a way of life, and it’s a really good life. In a world of seemingly endless choices, the best choice may actually be the simpler choice. We will continue to eat close to home, to be fed by our neighbors, and to believe in a different agricultural future, where all people can be healthy and nourished. We can take a step toward that every day, with every meal.
Much has been compromised for this food mission, and other pursuits will surely reshape my rhythm. But, I have channeled my inner pioneer woman, and she’s here to stay. She will continue to stock the fridge and pantry with local goods, pull over on the side of the road to pick berries or nuts, and she will keep cooking without recipes. The days ahead will also hold a little more spontaneity, a lot more tea parties with friends, some traveling, plus the addition of exotic spices and leavening agents.
Sarah Bodnar is a consultant and writer living in Mendocino, CA. When not cooking or foraging, she can be found on her yoga mat or throwing an axe. Follow her on Twitter @sarahebodnar.