What does it mean to be a locavore? There are a million and one philosophical reasons for being one, such as the positive effects on the environment, supporting the local business climate and creating greater ties to the community. You could go on forever about all the good points. But what does it really mean to be a locavore? What does each day (and season) look like? Is it possible to do it? Is life enjoyable? More enjoyable? Less? Harder or easier?
I haven’t always eaten locally. I was born in the 1970’s and for the most part I was raised on processed and canned food. Oscar Meyer bologna, green bean casserole, Skippy peanut butter and more. I do have memories of eating local food though. My parents had a garden each summer and I enjoyed fresh peas, just-ripe fruit and corn on the cob. But this was the extent of my experience with local eating as a child. It wasn’t until I moved to my current home in upstate New York and by chance entered a “perfect storm” of local eating that I realized it was possible to eat locally all year round.
The perfect storm, to sum it up quickly, is this: my oldest child (6 years old) has severe food allergies. As she has grown, it has become apparent that she cannot eat boxed, processed food as nearly all of it contains an allergen or is processed in a suspect manner (risk of cross contamination). Years ago, while I was learning more about how to safely feed her, I joined a local Unitarian Universalist congregation and met many local eaters. With them I participated in a few Northwest Earth Institute discussion courses. The courses (and the discussions) opened my eyes. Along the way I found out about a local CSA and signed up. I had no idea what I was doing back then. I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do.
So, is it easy or hard? In the beginning it was a challenge because I had to rethink so much of my day to day life. It’s gotten easier. I’ve allocated time to preserving food for instance. I used to think that late August was a perfectly fine time to go on vacation, but since I’ve started eating locally, I realize I need to be close to my garden and my kitchen at that time of year so I can harvest food, make jam, and can tomatoes. I used to think it was okay to purchase strawberries at the grocery store in February and dip them in chocolate when I got home, but now I realize that strawberries aren’t grown around these parts at that time of year, and I should keep my mitts off them. June is chocolate-strawberry season here. So you see, it’s more of a shift of perspective than anything else.
Even though I’ve been eating locally for a few years, I’m still learning about what it means to be a locavore day in and day out. I’ll bet many locavores would say the same thing. I’ll share what I’ve learned:
• Eating seasonally helps to mark time.
• It’s a lot of work. Growing and sourcing local produce, meat, eggs and dairy products takes time and energy, and preserving them takes even more. But if you take pleasure in it and find some sense of connection and fulfillment, it’s worth it… even if your family and friends think you’re a freak. I think it’s worth it. I don’t think you’re a freak.
• To back that point up, it helps considerably to meet other people who like eat locally and preserve their own food. They make you feel more normal and reinforce the notion that your lifestyle is worth pursuing.
• If I’m […you’re] not careful, it can get old really fast. For example, eating tomatoes and cucumbers every day for several weeks isn’t easy. I have to vary my recipes considerably to keep it interesting. Read cookbooks and cooking blogs.
• The first vegetables and fruits of the season are greeted with excitement. You eat and preserve a lot of them, and when it’s time for the season to end, you wave good-bye ecstatically.
• As a complete counterpoint to the previous point: When the season ends, I find myself wondering why I didn’t use more of those vegetables and fruits, no matter how much I actually used.
• Late summer and early fall are times of bounty, and it’s easy to appreciate local eating. During the coldest days of winter, when I desire the fresh and abundant produce I can’t have, I appreciate eating locally the most. I feel the pull of desire, the hollowness of want, and I appreciate my feelings so much more. It’s human drama at its best. Dramatic? Maybe. But come on, indulge me.
As I was thinking about all of this, I wondered if my list of “Things I’ve Learned” has been true for locavores who have come before me. I called my parents, my step-parents, my in-laws, and this is what I heard: If you lived in the country, your parents would have had a vegetable and fruit garden each year, and they would have grown and processed their own poultry year round. Summer (for everyone, even for folks closer to the city) was a time when fresh produce from local farms was available. In the winter, everyone ate grocery-store canned or frozen vegetables, with the exception of my stepmother’s grandma, a homesteader who canned all of her own veggies. What about variety? I see variety as a key point in surviving locavore life. Was it important to the cooks and eaters 50 or 60 years ago? NO. Your mother (or caregiver) would have served the same vegetables the same way each time. My goodness! My mother reports that in June she was served a bowl of peas every day for lunch, and in July and August she would have a plate of sliced tomatoes every day for lunch. “Any variation?” I asked. “Yes. You could pour milk over your peas or eat them plain, and you could put salt or sugar on your tomatoes if you wished.” So that was it. No basil, no mint, no bread cubes and olive oil to make panzanella. Those home cooks would have looked at my mile-long list of tomato recipes with… amazement? Confusion? Disgust? Make what you will of the differences, one thing is apparent: we have much more variety than we did decades ago. Even the types of available vegetables are greater and more abundant.
Whatever stage of locavore-ness you’re in, whether you’ve been eating locally for eons or you are new to the scene, know that your relationship to food and mealtime is constantly evolving and changing. It’s a relationship that deserves care and attention, a relationship that can withstand stress and neglect for a while, but demands respect. For some people being a locavore can be just a lofty goal, but for many others it is something to commit to and follow as much as possible. It’s not simple, but it’s certainly not impossible. There are times of overwhelming abundance and times of deprivation. It’s a lifestyle. And for me, and maybe you, it’s worth every minute.