Some Winter Reflections
Times are a little quiet over here at the Gastronomical Three. Post New Year, work reared its ugly head and gave all three of us a bite in the butt, but I think there’s also been a bit of winter hibernation going on. I’ve been cooking: a bit of braised chicken and parsnips here, some espresso–rubbed pork chops there, a little tomato sauce put up this summer with a couple of Appleschram Italian sausages . . . but it’s felt pretty quiet and mostly functional. Tasty. But functional.
So, in the best winter tradition, instead of doing, I’ve been reading. And because all my books on hold at the Ann Arbor District Library came in at once, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about local eating. A couple of months back there was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (hey, I know I am like so late to that party — but I couldn’t afford the hardcover, dammit), followed by his In Defense of Food (which, while not an argument for local eating per se, points us inevitably in that direction). Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegatable, Miracle, disarmingly homey, laugh-out-loud funny on the subject of turkey sex (while paradoxically bringing me also to tears on the same subject, as I read about how agribusiness has all but eradicated the breeding instinct in domestic turkeys), and, to my tastes, sanely moderate. Kingsolver won me over when she declared that any belief system that did not include coffee also did not include her.
There’s been more. A little Wendell Berry profile in this month’s Gourmet Magazine. Our own Arbor Brewing Company pledging a grown-local menu (and oh, how I’m hoping the kitchen does it justice), and of course a lot out there in the blog world. Sticking close to home, we have The Farmer’s Marketer keeping a close eye on the the people and businesses contributing to the local Ann Arbor food scene. Recently I ran across Eat Close To Home, an Ann Arbor blogger working hard to find sources for locally grown and produced food and generously sharing them with rest of us. Diane Dyer, Ann Arbor nutritionist and multiple- time cancer surviver, has been chronicling her explorations of eating local. And up in Lansing, Caroline’s mom has been writing about her attempts to fill her daughter’s lunch box with organic, preferably locally produced, meals that align with the more standard offerings at her daycare center.
Me? I’ve been trying. I haven’t made any pledges or started measuring my food miles. But increasingly over the past year, I’ve been looking at where things are grown and under what conditions and trying to keep my appetites and my food dollars close to home, even when it means spending a few more of those food dollars. These days, when I go shopping, I think about how I would have fed my family this week if I could only buy local products. Last week? Apples, cider and milk are easy. So are eggs, butter, cheese and meat (chicken, pork, beef and lamb, all grass fed, free range or pasture raised, as appropriate). With a little scrounging, I found some Michigan turnips and some mustard greens. The slow roasted tomatoes in my freezer would have helped (and if I was really making a commitment to eating locally, there’d be a lot more of those). Michigan dried cherries perk up a lot different dishes. My family would not have gone hungry. Not this week.
But we probably would have been grouchy from headaches induced by caffeine deprivation. The elders could have eased the pain with Michigan wine, but the younger set would have been jonesing for orange juice, and no one would have been happy without carbohydrates. (There’s lots of locally produced bread and some locally produced pasta, but I’m betting the wheat has a few hundred miles on it).
I absolutely believe in all the good reasons for eating local. It supports friends and neighbors. It improves food security in a number of ways. It promotes biodiversity. Animals raised outside of industrial farms are more likely to have a pleasant life and a painless death. It tastes better. But I’m still not sure how much of this
koolaid local organic apple cider I can drink.
Some sharp-tongued writer I came across recently (and whose name I forgot to note), says “my Irish ancestors had a name for eating locally. They called it famine.” A rhetorical flourish, perhaps, but this weekend when I looked at the meager offerings at the Farmer’s Market (and I know that’s not the only place to get local produce) the word “scurvy” did float through my head. Food trade and food travel evolved for many different reasons and only some of them were because of an appetite for exotic luxury goods (an appetite which has its merits at any rate). A lot of that trade was about new ways to keep people healthy and alive. But, of course, it’s a long way from low level trade dependent on things like wind driven ships and camels’ backs to the petroleum-fueled excesses of today.
I am wary of dogmatism in all forms, and so am on the alert for dogmatism in the guise of local-and-sustainable language. I am relieved to say that I have actually found very little. Most of the writers, professional and amateur, who are promoting this kind of eating are folks a lot like me who just seem to want us to try a little harder, think a little more, spend a little more when it’s appropriate. I’m also, frankly, wary of belief systems that are intent on interfering with pleasure. So far, most advocates of local eating actually argue for its pleasures. They point out the epicurean surprises and delights of a diet focussed on the foods close at hand.
But last winter, my mother sent us a pineapple from Hawaii that she saw harvested from the tree. John, Naomi and I spent an all too brief half hour slicing it, smelling it and devouring it. A distinctly exotic pleasure, and one I would be loathe to give up.
Then again, I’m willing to have that pleasure only once every couple of years, when Mom goes to Hawaii. And I’m willing to slowly and steadily shift the majority of my diet away from the coasts and the tropics and the Mediterranean and toward the Great Lakes. I’d like to say that moderation is the key, but I’m also suspicious that advocating moderation is just another form of rationalization. Few of us deliberately live in excess of any kind.
I’m motivated to make these kinds of changes because I believe there are both ethical and pragmatic reasons to do so. But what will keep me going (you know, it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle . . . midwestern women don’t get . . . oh, never mind) is if the food keeps tasting good. Almost all the proponents of local eating say “you’ll be eating better than you ever have in your life.” I believe that, and I believe it because I think you’ll be paying a lot closer attention to your food. Most of us are, for at least large portions of the week, mindless eaters. Local eating, at least in this climate and in this era, is, perforce, mindful eating. And when you start paying attention to where your food comes from, how its prepared and what it’s possibilities are, you immediately start eating better. The constraints imposed by climate and geography are also great opportunities for creativity and innovation. I never had a turnip in my life before this summer. They’re good.
Ann Arbor Turnip Gratin
A couple of pounds of pink Tantre Farms turnips (get them at The People’s Food Co-op)
2 T Calder Dairy butter (available at Arbor Farms)
Some thyme that you dug up out of your garden this summer
1 cup of Calder Dairy heavy cream (also at Arbor Farms)
1 cup of cheese. You want Parmesan. Struggle with your conscience and buy a Wisconsin variety. Or let your conscience win and experiment with some Michigan cheese (a Rosewood cheddar? Something from Zingerman’s? Grassfield’s raw milk gouda?) .
Salt and pepper. Of course these are on the exempt list. Remind yourself that it’s much more efficient to transport dry goods such as spices (and coffee!) than, say, watermelon.
Preheat oven to 450.
Slice the turnips paper-thin, preferably with the mandoline that you got for Christmas and of which you are no longer afraid. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet and then let cool. Spread out a layer of turnips, then some salt, pepper and thyme. Repeat twice more. Put the skillet over medium heat and cook, covered, for about ten minutes. Peek under the bottom layer to make sure you’ve got a little browning going on. When you do, pour the cup of cream over the turnips, put the cover back on and continue to cook over medium heat for another twenty minutes or so until the turnips seem fairly tender. Sprinkle the cheese on top and pop it, uncovered, in the oven until it’s brown and bubbly. Very nice with (free range) pork or grilled (grass-fed) flank steak.