Eating close to home doesn’t have to be painful.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
The reactions alone were delicious: As I worked my way through a local diet designed to diminish my carbon imprint and enhance my food system understanding, the running commentary from spectators was as entertaining as the diet was enlightening. “No beer?!” “You have to try this local chard.” “Never thought you’d last a day without hot sauce.”
The comments continued well past publication of the piece [“Miles To Go Before I Eat,” Nov. 29-Dec. 5] and remained thick and spicy, not unlike homemade heirloom tomato soup, a highlight of the diet. One reader demanded to know in detail where to buy the different local oils and organic bacon (the list is now up on montereycountyweekly.com); a colleague questioned my 150-mile radius, which he saw as geographic gluttony for punishment. Below, I synthesize these comments and answers to the questions that came in with a basic guide. Common sense is a theme; other themes include planning, asking questions and paying attention.
Play the market
The most obvious strategy to eating local is, thankfully, the easiest, as the proliferation of farmers markets in the county – there are at least eight – mirrors a nationwide surge. There are no excuses for not loading up on produce, nuts and honey there – and the incentives are many, including the facts that locally grown fruits and vegetables usually are sold within 24 hours of harvest and that produce eaten at the height of season delivers more nutrients (and better flavor).
For a full list of local markets, locations and times, visit montereycountyweekly.com. For best results, shop early for better selection, or arrive at the end to swing deals with farmers looking to clear their inventory. Other ways to stretch your check include buying foods at the peak of their season, when abundance knocks down prices, asking farmers about money-saving “u-pick” opportunities on site, and familiarizing yourself with competing prices (oftentimes substantial differences in price exist within a few yards). Bringing plenty of small bills and a good-sized canvas bag also helps – as does asking farmers about both their practices and their recipes. Take advantage of samples. Farmers want you to try their wares, and one purveyor’s berries can be sweet as sugar, another’s tasteless.
Talk to your grocer
Local shops like Salinas’ Star Market and P.G.’s Grove Market have long prioritized local goods. Many chain supermarket managers are empowered to seek partnerships with area providers. Kelli Takikawa, store team leader at Monterey’s Whole Foods, is charged with finding the area’s food people – and loves to point out their products (prominent tags are also helpful). On my last visit she was especially proud of the produce from Salinas-based nonprofit ALBA farms, the gluten-free treats from Monterey’s Beyond Wheat Artisan Bakery and Lula’s Chocolates out of Ryan Ranch. But beyond county-centric spots like these, vendors everywhere love feedback from customers – and customers are often unaware how much weight a request carries. Ask for local.
Make savvy exceptions
Everybody that sustains a localvore diet successfully for any extended amount of time doesn’t get draconian with the rules – responsible eating doesn’t mean deprivation. Occasional dinners out and exceptions for teas, coffee, spices and grains help perpetuate a diet by keeping it realistic.
While I chose to base my radius on a common restaurant industry standard, extending it to the state still would be very much a step in the right direction.
More good news: Many items come from far away, but in low-emission ways. Veteran food writer and Weekly contributor Ari LeVaux was miffed I didn’t draw the distinction between items that arrive in refrigerated boats and planes that gorge on energy – imported fruit, vegetables, fish and meats – and “slow-boat” items like spices.
Join the club
Life with Community Supported Agriculture is a beautiful thing – retrieving a box of fresh-from-the-field offerings makes it feel like Christmas once a week. And while there aren’t many CSAs in Monterey County (though Carmel Valley’s Serendipity Farms currently is taking subscriptions, the rains have pushed its start back to April), there are several out-of-county CSAs that serve Monterey. For info and links, visit our website.
Attend the mayo clinic
LeVaux also got on me for not seizing more authorship with sauce (the guy’s been doing the local thing since way before it went mainstream). “Mayo takes like five minutes,” he e-mailed me. “For aioli just add garlic. I’ve never made Tapatío [hot sauce] per se, but making hot sauce isn’t rocket science either, and I’ve made plenty.” Sure enough, a simple Internet search yields a range of recipes; setting aside a night to make sauces, prep lunches and plan meals can make everything much easier in the days ahead, and can be damn enjoyable and educational at the same time.