“It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers.” (pg. 3)
The 100-Mile Diet begins in a cottage with no light, fridge, car or hot water; the kind of place I dream of when too immersed in the hectic daily business of life. Most of us would starve out there, or so we believe. After an inspired meal gathered only from the wild, Alisa and James launched a year-long diet of food only found within 100 miles of their home. They found themselves returning from their cottage not starving, but with armfuls more food than they arrived with.
Why would anyone limit themselves to eating locally? How does that help anyone? Doesn’t it deprive third-world farmers and truckers of their livelihoods? There are a number of persuasive reasons. Local foods have fewer pesticides and more nutrition. Seasonal variety is good for developing immunity. Unprocessed foods represent a real solution to the obesity problem. Distant foods are only affordable through cheap oil, arguably enforced politically. Sparing the miles reduces the carbon emissions that cause global warming. And about those third-world farmers: when the 1994 free trade agreement was signed, subsidized corn from America overwhelmed Mexico’s two million small farmers and their 5000 varieties of corn. The collapse of a local industry due to economic deals (or a train derailment spilling ten thousand gallons of caustic soda into the river and killing half a million fish) is merely one disaster in a global economy in which we can always go elsewhere. In a local economy, we are reminded that such events are a catastrophe.
Works for me. But how does one go about eating locally? And can it be done without a “depression style diet of beets, cabbage and potatoes” (pg. 24)? Alisa and James started simply, eating seasonally from the farmer’s markets. It is not tough to find these in your area, e.g., Ontario. They sensibly used up supplies like salt that were already in their cupboards, but when they ran out they improvised, e.g., refining salt from the ocean. They used honey instead of sugar; I have got to get me some of that pumpkin honey. The great revelation from local eating is the immense variety of tastes that can be found. It reminds me of my half-dozen batches of home-brewing I did a couple years ago. I started with simple recipes but then discovered real flavour by adding freshly rolled grains and hops.
I went grocery shopping when I was reading their book. I read the source of each product on its label. Local apple juice replaced California grapefruit juice, and blueberries replaced my sultan raisins from Iran. I had no idea that carbonated water came all the way from Italy or Germany; dropped that. I have not replaced coffee yet but I am thinking about herbal tea. I am sure olive oil can be exchanged for a healthy local vegetable oil. And local vegetables frozen when fresh are always a good choice.
Turning over a local leaf can get quite philosophical. Their diet was not vegetarian, and this raised the question of whether the animals had been fed locally. They lived near the US border; should they break the law by taking local foods across it? Inevitably, you have to ask yourself if you are doing this because you believe the world is falling apart. When Alisa and James were shucking corn in their apartment they felt like part of some apocalyptic cult. While it is hard not to wonder at times if our fast global culture can sustain itself, I have to count myself with them among the non-believers. Instead, I see progress as something that is not always linear; sometimes we have to take a few steps back to pick up something we missed. A few weeks ago I read an objection to slow food on the grounds that women would likely have to do most of the work (see comments in this Metafilter post). Both Alisa and James worked hard, but James did most of the cooking. Perhaps we had to step away from slow food for awhile to advance women’s rights, but now may be a time to return to it for our health and that of the planet.
Alisa and James are journalists by trade but they sure know how to have fun with language; they “scuffed over to the farmer’s stand” (pg. 53) and ate strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness” (pg. 54). The edge in their relationship was of no more interest to me than it appeared to be to James as they alternated narration by chapter; I wondered if Alisa was simply missing some nutrient in her diet. I much preferred the drama of their quest for wheat: the disappointment at the ruined bag, the discovery that wheat had been grown locally in 1890, and Alisa’s delight when she declared, “I found a wheat farmer” (pg. 184). With a little effort, everything was possible.