Saturday, February 2, 2008

book review: Plenty

“Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally” by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon

Review originally published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, Minnesota, on Januray 24, 2008.

It all began with one amazing meal. Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon were expecting guests at their “cottage” – a rickety eighty year old homestead in northern British Columbia, miles from any grocery store or town or even a road – and all they had to feed them was one cabbage “greasy with rot.” So they turned to the land around them, and prepared an autumn feast with a trout caught from the nearby river, wild mushrooms and dandelion greens from the forest, and potatoes and garlic dug from their garden. They picked apples, cherries and rose hips, and steeped them in the wine brought in by their guests. Every ingredient had a story and an identifiable point of origin, and the meal was exquisite. At once both simple and decadent, it captured perfectly the season and the feeling of friends coming together to create something beautiful. Afterwards they were left with one question: Would it be possible to eat like this all the time?

Back at their one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, they drew a circle on the map and decided that, for one year, they would only eat food produced within a 100 mile radius of their home. They began their experiment on the spring equinox: “Like urbanites everywhere, we imagined that, at the stroke of midnight on the last day of winter, fresh green shoots would burst forth from the earth to nourish us.”

Anyone familiar with the seasons in a northern climate will understand immediately how woefully unprepared they were.

They squeaked by on eggs, fish, and last year’s root vegetables until May, when the farmer’s market opened and the real harvest began. Then they began biking to a farm on the edge of town where they could check in on the chickens who produced the dozen eggs they bought every Saturday. Fish was purchased from a market just a few blocks from their house and harvested from the Salish Sea just a few blocks further. Fresh vegetables came either from their three foot by ten foot community garden plot, friends’ gardens, the farmer’s market, or directly from the farms themselves. Their diet followed the seasons – and microseasons – and suddenly the weather became more important than ever before: a late frost stalled all the early spring greens, and the fall rains gave the last of the tomatoes blossom end rot.

It took them nearly eight months to find a local wheat farmer, and in the meantime they were forced to go without bread and pasta. But they picked strawberries (29 pounds of them) and smuggled cheese across the border from Washington. They filled a chest freezer with blueberries and corn and fish, and they learned to can tomatoes and make blackberry jam. They sampled local honey and discovered some varieties – like the pumpkin honey or dandelion honey – whose flavors were so distinct that they were utterly unlike anything they had tried before: “The epiphany felt urgent, a gentler version of that first adolescent kiss that tells you there’s something good you’ve been missing out on all your life.”

The food on most North Americans dinner plates has traveled on average between 1,500 and 3,000 miles; that distance has increased by 25% between 1980 and 2001, and continues to climb. Apples come from New Zealand, berries from South America, and lettuce from China. Cheap oil and a global economy have created a system where most consumers are utterly disconnected from the food they eat, and while prices may fluctuate a little bit here and there, the shelves at the supermarket remain full year round, seeming to offer anything you want, whenever you want it.

But is this truly abundance? The produce in most grocery stores is limited to what can be grown or processed in enormous quantities and shipped long distances with minimal loss, and it tends to less flavorful and less nutritious. Untold numbers of heritage varieties of tomatoes or beans or potatoes, that for centuries had grown in kitchen gardens and family farms, sustaining people and contributing to the regional cuisine, are now being lost at alarming rates, and most people are unaware that they ever existed; in exploring the local food economy, James and Alisa were surprised to learn that, just like apples or grapes, strawberries too come in different varietal strains. They also met a farmer who has made it his life’s work to preserve as many of these old varieties as he can. When they visited him, he had growing in his fields forty kinds of garlic, eighty kinds of beans, and a startling three hundred kinds of tomatoes; he plants about eighty new varieties of seeds each year, and most come from small farms that have been forced out of business.

The book is written chronologically, from March to March, and Alisa and James take turns authoring every other chapter as they explore their relationship with food and with each other. The writing is lovely, and very readable, and although they claim that their book is at heart a memoir, the text is peppered with just the right amount of cold, hard facts to get the reader riled up about the virtues of eating locally, too. The story is engaging enough that you can forgive the slight gimmickiness of it – exactly one year, exactly 100 miles, leaping into the experiment cold turkey because it’s more interesting to watch them flail as they search high and low for wheat or fret about salt. Plenty is both fun and important, a very fine book for anyone interested in living a little more lightly on the earth.

James and Alisa's website: 100 Mile Diet: Local Eating for Global Change

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