Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Big Lie

It has been an enormously, ridiculously, embarrassingly long time since I have updated this blog, so let me catch you up to speed.  Our 100 mile dining experiment has been chugging along without a hitch - mostly.  Once we perfected our meals, there was not much to do but prepare them on high rotation ad nauseum, which made this diet quite easy, if boring.  “What would you like for breakfast, Dear, eggs, a smoothie, or rice?”  (We have prepared the rice like oatmeal with honey, milk, pecans, and dried fruit.)  The breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner choices have rarely changed in six weeks.  If you’ve ever wondered how much sweet potato souffle a person can eat, I’ll tell you that I tired of it after about four weeks.  Right now, I don’t care if I ever see another sweet potato again.

I will also tell you that there is nothing quite like the surprise of a new food choice on Saturday morning.  Most recently, one of our favorite farmers greeted us with this news, “I’ve got asparagus for you this week.”  Asparagus!  How wonderful!  I wouldn’t care if she had some local prunes.  Something different, anything different, is a delight.  But I actually like asparagus, so all the better.  Unlike my lifetime of grocery store experiences, which have occurred under harsh florescent lights and are marked by anonymous exchanges of plastic cards for unlimited “foods” wrapped in plastic bags, trips to the farmers markets each week are rewarding because of both the familiar faces and the unexpected surprises you are sure to find.  Our favorite market at Atherton Mills opens its large roll up doors in nice weather and welcomes dogs too.  There is even a vendor who makes local dog biscuits and dog care products.  Some of our most recent finds have included fresh apples (instead of dried apple rings) from Waxhaw, broccoli and asparagus from Unionville. and even some tulsi tea from Monroe - each more pleasing than the next.
While I would like to report to you that we have remained pure and true to our diet, I must confess that we did make one addition at the half way point - salt.  Now I’m not going to say that if I didn’t give in to her salt craving Joselle would have given me the boot, but she did really want some salt.  Further, she made a convincing argument that sodium is an important mineral and electrolyte, and that we were not getting enough of it. Though I believe we were not in imminent danger, there is a condition called hyponatremia, to which we might have been susceptible.  It’s hard to know, because it is impossible to find much information on hyponatremia as a result of limited salt in one’s diet.  Western diets present the opposite problem, so most cases of hyponatremia are connected to another diagnosis, like cirrhosis or congestive heart failure.  There were a couple of other factors that weighed into our decision.  In answer to our question about whether a 100 mile diet is possible in Charlotte, NC in the long-term, a resounding yes, but with the caveat that salt would have to be added and food would need to be stored to offer year-long variety.  So adding salt made our diet more realistic.  Finally, we got our hands on some greenhouse tomatoes from time to time, and what a difference a few shakes of salt made!

So about that big lie...  In late February, Joselle found some local pico de gallo at the farmers market.  The pico was actually the result of a lengthy conversation with the proprietor of a particular stand, during which they eliminated many of his other offerings.  But he assured her that his pico had no salt, sugar, or vinegar, and that the veggies were locally sourced, most from that very market.  By itself, the pico de gallo was not much to write home about, but it was a magnificent addition to our scrambled eggs.  Though we have enjoyed this combination for weeks, it has bothered me that this vendor does not list the ingredients on his containers.  (Isn’t that a no-no?)  This Saturday, to satisfy me, Joselle asked him again what was in the pico.  This time he recognized us but did not recall our quirky diet, so he told us about the lime juice.  Lime juice!!!  <Insert many, many expletives here.>  When he realized his error, he actually attempted to make light of the situation, making a joke about the local limes.  In addition to the blatant dishonesty, he denied us basic information about what we were putting in our own bodies.  Though the traditional industrial food system omits information regularly (think GMOs), we expected better of our neighbor.  Lesson: A huge limitation of our experiment is that we are relying on information from others, which, intentionally or not, is not always accurate.
“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Fine Print

When I wrote my research proposal last semester, I attempted to anticipate occasions when departing from the plan would be appropriate.  These exceptions, included in my proposal, are listed below:
  • If we were unable to find a reasonably balanced diet within 100 miles, we could expand our local range - first to 150 miles and then to 200 miles - to meet our basic dietary needs.
  • We could also extend our local range in the same manner to accommodate our preference for organic produce.
  • On Valentine's Day, we would treat ourselves to dinner at the Harvest Moon Grille, a restaurant that serves food grown within 100 miles of Charlotte.  We would not obsess over the details, such as whether the food was cooked in non-local oil or seasoned with non-local spices.
While our diet has lacked variety and expanding our mileage slightly would score us apples, peanuts, and peanut oil, we have opted to maintain the 100 mile radius.  However, on two occasions we have inadvertently strayed.  Both times we were shopping without a detailed map to show each and every small town within 100 miles, and we purchased food from vendors 115 miles away, even though we could have found the items (dairy and sweet potatoes) within the 100 mile range.  Oops!

The good news is that we have found eating within 100 miles to provide a reasonably balanced diet.  And, although we still prefer organic produce, we have been satisfied with the farming methods described to us by the farmers we have encountered.  Some are certified organic.  Many use organic methods without going through the hassle and expense of certification; others say they use low spray methods.

However, you can bet your sweet potato that we did enjoy a most scrumptious dinner at the Harvest Moon Grille for our Valentine's celebration.  We were only a few days into the 100 mile experiment, and it was just the boost our spirits needed.  Our charming waiter Pete took exquisite care of us, and owner and head chef Cassie Parsons was both interesting and interested in our experience.  As suspected, most of their food comes from a 100 mile radius, much of it from within 40 miles, but the restaurant does use oils, spices, coffee, and chocolate that are non-local.  We were forced to enjoy all of the above, as the three-course Valentine's meal included everything from soup through dessert.  My main course was rabbit ragout without the rabbit - pasta with a savory tomato and carrot based sauce.  I highly recommend it!

We have made one exception that I did not anticipate.  I was invited to attend's National Leadership Summit in Minneapolis February 24-27, which was an opportunity not to be missed.  I easily decided that packing a suitcase full of local North Carolina food was not going to work, nor would I have time to source and prepare local food from Minnesota.  This required us to suspend our 100 mile experiment for a few days, and the simplest solution was to extend our end date by a few days to make up the difference.

While in Minnesota, my menu options were limited to the food provided at the conference and available in the airports.  But I did consume ice cream, pizza, chocolate, and coffee during my trip.  I'm not going to lie, the ice cream was really good.  But, overall, I did not find any of the food particularly wonderful with two exceptions.  The caterer prepared a delicious eggplant dip that rocked my world.  Also, the group had dinner out at Gandhi Mahal, an Indian restaurant owned by a Bangladeshi man.  That is the meal I will fantasize about for the remainder of our 100 mile challenge.

While I was away, Joselle suspended her diet too.  She indulged in some of her favorite junk foods, like potato chips, ice cream, chocolate, Papa John's pizza and cinnapie, but found that they were just not as delicious as anticipated.  Bummer.  The oranges and apples did not disappoint, however, and she savored every bite.  She also attended a cooking class at Harvest Moon Grille.  The single most exciting thing that happened over the weekend was that she found dried peaches, more pecans, and, most importantly, fresh greenhouse grown strawberries at the farmers market.  Hello, Smoothies!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

And So It Begins...

Here's the post you've all been waiting on - the 100 mile dining experiment has begun!  How is it going?, you wonder.  One word: Bland.  That's right, bland.  Think vegetables floating in water - disgustingly bland.  And no matter how much local unsalted butter, spice blends, and fresh ingredients I use - no matter how good it smells while it's cooking - the end result is disappointingly blah.

But there is good news too!  We found milk, butter, and heavy whipping cream over the weekend.  On Sunday, our lovely friend Dawn brought us a bag of local rice - our only food at that point in the grains and cereals category.  Coincidentally, on Saturday evening, I had heard about the farmer who grows rice and kiwis (yes, kiwis) in Morganton, NC.  Thanks to Dawn, we did not have to drive to Morganton.  Instead we discovered that his rice is sold locally at the historic Atherton Mill and Market on Joselle's route to and from school.  Since the Atherton Market is open three days per week, Joselle stopped in on Tuesday for more rice.  And guess what my Valentine scored - greenhouse tomatoes from Mt. Pleasant and Albemarle, frozen blackberries from Hendersonville, and huge bags of dried apple slices from Moravian Falls.  Before the discovery of the frozen blackberries, dried apple slices were the only fruit we had found, and we had been rationing them!

Joselle even found cornmeal at Atherton Market, which I was suspicious about at first.  Local cornmeal exists but is not easy to identify, because there is often a geographic difference between where it is milled and where it is grown.  The cornmeal she found was milled in Oak Ridge at the Old Mill of Guilford, which does fall within the 100 mile radius.  So I called them and was pleased to discover that it is grown in Boonville, which is also within 100 miles of Charlotte!  I have learned to ask lots of questions as we have been led astray on more than one occasion so far.

Some of This Weekend's Booty
So about our meals...  I may have exaggerated slightly about vegetables floating in water.  The soup I made turned out more like vegetables floating in vegetable tea.  I have found it difficult to get my broth on without salt or a decent vegetable stock.  Our first meal was scrambled eggs, which included local spices, green onions, and rehydrated tomatoes and mushrooms.  I have since learned that adding butter helps.  You should know that we have been spoiled by years of yummy eggs, which was Joselle's mother's way of making them.  Our eggs always have lots in them - we have Greek eggs, Mexican eggs, and Italian varieties of yummy eggs too!  So any other eggs pale by comparison.

Local Eggs and Dried Apple Slices
Our favorite meal so far was probably dinner last night.  We used our blackberries in combination with milk, honey, pecans, ice, and a little heavy whipping cream to make smoothies!  They were a little seedy but really good.  Joselle also was gracious enough to whip up some cornbread while I was at work.  Though the cornbread lacked the recommended salt and baking soda, we didn't notice.  We just slathered it in butter and honey!  We also had baked purple sweet potatoes with butter, honey, and pecans.  It felt like a small, but important victory.

Blackberry Smoothie, Cornbread, & Purple Sweet Potato
Well, that's the skinny so far.  Speaking of skinny, I lost 2.5 pounds in first two days.  We really have not been eating enough calories, but we also have not been particularly hungry.  I have also not been especially tempted by other foods.  This is probably because I am mostly at home, where we have limited temptations.  However, our dogs did return home from daycare on Valentine's Day with a bag of dog biscuits and candy for us - chocolates and gummy worms (the sweet and sour type).  The candy smelled so good.  My mouth is watering thinking of it...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper

Lately, I have been feeling like Aesop's fabled grasshopper, who failed to store food for wintertime.  You remember the story...

It is not that I have been lazy like the grasshopper, but I feel equally unprepared.  I imagine all of the food I could have stored by now, if I had known about this undertaking last summer.  The reality is that by the time I selected this particular behavioral change as part of my research project, the opportunity for seizing the cornucopia of local food had passed.  Speaking of the cornucopia, I have discovered that there is one featured prominently on our state's seal.  Do you think this is a sign of good things to come?  I sure hope so!

A recent visit to the Matthews Community Farmers' Market renewed my hope for winter abundance.  The Matthews Market is open every Saturday year-round, and all of the produce is grown within 50 miles of Matthews, which is essentially a large suburb of Charlotte.  Though the Matthews Market is smaller than the Charlotte Market and also offers its share of prepared foods, non-food items, and meat, every piece of produce sold there is on our menu.  I looked around at this group of farmers, and I thought, These people are not going to let us starve.  What a relief!

Our most exciting find in Matthews was a new selection of spices, including a blend that could be used instead of salt and another that could be used to make a ranch-style salad dressing.  We also purchased eggs from Alex, a serious young businessman in his early teens who manages over 200 free range chickens in Monroe, NC.  We even bought locally grown luffa for washing dishes.  However, dairy products have continued to elude us...

According to their website, the Davidson Farmer's Market has a couple of promising dairy vendors who offer butter, milk, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, feta, mozzarella, and a variety of other delicious cheeses.  There is also a mushroom vendor and the possibility of greenhouse tomatoes!  I planned to visit this market last Saturday.  However, this time of year they are only open on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.

Having been burned by the non-local ingredients on my last cheese hunt, I am attempting to contact these vendors before I hit the Davidson Market this coming Saturday.  Assuming their products meet the 100 mile food criteria, I will channel my inner Tommy Lee Jones - you know, "a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse in that area..." or at least every dairy booth.  Armed with coolers, cash, and reusable bags, if there is dairy to be had, we'll have it by Sunday!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Indeed, we have no bananas.  Unfortunately for us, we also have no coffee, sugar, oranges, cinnamon, salt, bread, or cashews.  The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.  Truthfully, some of those things are still lurking in our pantry just feet from where I now sit writing this blog entry.  However, beginning next week, we will not be able to enjoy them - at least not if we are going to meet the challenge of 100 mile dining.  When journalists and partners Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon pioneered the 100 mile diet experience, they allowed themselves the luxury of using any of the items still in their cupboards - a fact that my wife Joselle is quick to point out.  But they were eating within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, B.C. for an entire year; our challenge is only six weeks long.  (Check out their book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diethere.)

Our timing could be better.  The dead of winter, even the mild winter climate change has blessed us with thus far, does not provide the variety our western palates crave.  To further complicate matters, I have some childhood trauma connected with root vegetables, a winter staple.  One word: rutabagas.  As vegetarians, North Carolina’s wealth of poultry and hog farms, and its abundance of grass-fed beef, will not help us.  And much of the produce that does grow here (like berries, peaches, watermelons, eggplants, green beans, and cucumbers) is not growing right now.  However, in order to include this six week experiment as part of my larger study of pro-environmental behavioral change, mid-February is as late as I dare to begin, because - and believe me when I tell you this - I want to graduate on time!

Of course, before I committed to this project, I did my homework.  After all I do not want for my wife, who is truly a good sport to support me in a variety of crazy whims, and me to starve.  It’s true that we could live off of our fat for a while, but who wants to do that!  In addition to a variety of farmers markets and the organic produce delivery service to which we already subscribe, I found plenty of dairy products and even a mill that works with regional growers of heirloom, organic grains.  I believed this would be a snap!  The single scariest aspect of the undertaking is that I will be doing all of the cooking for six weeks.  It’s not that I am a bad cook - when I do cook, the food is well received - it’s just that I rarely cook.  I am not efficient, skilled, or comfortable in the kitchen.

My plan started to unravel after a conversation with our organic produce delivery service.  Unlike a CSA, our service is not all local.  For example, they provide us with kiwis from New Zealand and citrus fruits from Florida.  However, they also provide locally grown produce like sweet potatoes and kale.  One reason we selected their service is that it is fully customizable, which means that for six weeks we can choose to opt out of long distance produce in favor of local options.  But, as it turns out, the local produce our service provides comes primarily from the extreme eastern part of the state, which is outside of our 100 mile radius.  See the map below.

Next we visited the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, which is run by the State of North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.  The Charlotte Market, which is the largest in our area, is open year-round at least five days per week.  The challenge of the Charlotte Market is navigating through the prepared foods, produce distributors, and non-food booths (like soaps, plants and flowers) to find actual locally grown foods.  We found herbs, mushrooms, pecans, kale, sweet potatoes, and, yes, even rutabaga, as well as dried apple rings, dried tomato slices, and eggs.  Though this is a start, it is insufficient to feed us for six weeks.

The cheese we found came from "the North Carolina mountains," but the farmer who sold it to us did not make it and could not be more specific.  We also indulged in a jar of currant jelly made by a sweet lady from neighboring Gastonia.  Though the currants grow on her property, the jelly also contains sugar and pectin, which are not local.  Therefore, neither the jelly nor the cheese will qualify for our dining experiment.

Since no one at the Charlotte Market was selling dairy (other than goat cheese), we visited Earth Fare, a regional grocer similar to Whole Foods, in search of Ashe County Cheese.  Made in West Jefferson, NC since 1930, Ashe County Cheese is well within a 100 mile radius.  Happily, we found two varieties, North Carolina Cheddar with Caraway and North Carolina Pepper Jack.  Then I read the ingredients: pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, and caraway or jalapeno peppers respectively.  SALT!  I have no idea if cheese culture, enzymes, caraway, or jalapeno peppers are local, but I know the salt is not.  Freak.  Perhaps I have made a horrible mistake...