If you have been following this little sustainable food series about a challenge we devised and undertook, you might be curious about what happened when our target goal date rolled around. And here it is:
Tomorrow is the first day after the challenge … and we will start our day with a cup of coffee. I will sink my teeth into the chocolate I’ve been fantasizing about for weeks. We’ll once again enjoy such delights as oatmeal and nuts and perhaps the occasional avocado or banana. We’re looking forward to once again using spices; even basic black pepper and cinnamon will seem to dramatically inspire our dishes. I just might crack into a bottle of wine bought on a recent trip to Virginia sometime soon.
But, to our surprise, the arrival of of this date does not feel like the saving grace we’d originally anticipated it to be, and we also don’t feel as though our time during the experiment was fraught with deprivation or that it was a miserable test of wills. This, too, has been a pleasant surprise. In fact, we plan to continue feeding ourselves very much in this same way indefinitely; while we will reincorporate some out-of-region offerings, we are committed to acquiring the majority of our food as we have done throughout this challenge. In fact, I already cannot imagine having to rely exclusively on grocery stores again, and I very much hope I never have to.
I have been so grateful for this experience and for everything I have learned.
Indeed, what resulted from the experiment was further commitment to the concept. While we will reincorporate a number of nutritional elements into our lives that were an impossibility during the challenge based on our geography, we have become ever more cognizant of the manner in which those reincorporated elements arrive to us. And indeed, we will continue to locally source as much of our food as we can, even through the winter at a biweekly (indoor) farmers’ market that primarily offers root vegetables lugged in from their storage places in barns and root cellars all over the region. We will continue to research and learn and experiment, and our interest in it has only grown. The challenge’s conclusion really wasn’t a conclusion at all … the conclusion was really just the beginning.
One might wonder why we chose to focus so much on food in our efforts to live more sustainably when there are a myriad of other avenues through which to explore sustainability—and the truth is that food is really only one aspect of it for us. Another area of considerable interest to us—and it certainly is not the only one—is that of small-space living, and luckily, there is growing interest in that very subject the world over, making the information about it all the more accessible.
Finding our supply of the best eggs in the universe once again depleted, we made the pilgrimage up to the Choiniere Family Farm to replenish our stock. Upon arrival, we discovered two dozen of the happy little miracles set aside for us, whereupon we met up with Guy in the barnyard, armed with basket in hand and trusty Scout wagging joyously at his side. “Let’s see if we can find another dozen for you,” Guy said, “and make it a little more worth your while.” He handed me the basket. “I’ll even let you collect them!”
Cheering, I excitedly pounced at the opportunity. Save my first up-close-and-personal experience with hens only a few short months earlier in a small coop in Central Virginia—which really didn’t even count because I didn’t find an egg—I’d never had the good fortune to forage for eggs fresh from the good little ladies who’d laid them. I’m not sure what I was expecting; I suppose I’d perhaps envisioned a cozy, bucolic scene in which soft and perhaps slightly snoozy hens—taking great pride in their important role in this entirely symbiotic relationship—would chirp a pleasant good morning to me as I gently reached beneath them and closed my hand tenderly around their eggs. Perhaps I’d thought I’d murmur soothingly to them, pat them on their little heads, thank them politely for the eggs, and stroll softly away with my basket swinging gaily from my forearm, stepping out into a breathtakingly sunny morning with the skies full of singing and swooping birds, the fragrance of sun-warmed hay perfuming the world. Tra-la-la-la.
I suppose it’s ridiculous but nonetheless entirely true that, before that morning, it had never occurred to me that the hens would not exactly be overjoyed to relinquish the eggs for which they’d worked so hard—and that, as a result, there was the potential for something of a battle of wills between both parties who wanted said eggs. As I gigglingly approached my first hen and began reaching forward, I was dismayed when she looked me right in the eye and screeched menacingly. I snapped my hand back and blinked bleakly at Guy. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “Will she bite me?” (How ludicrous to use the word bite regarding a creature devoid of teeth.)
Guy chuckled. “She’s feeling you out,” he said. “She’s trying to see who’s in charge. If you’re calm and in control, she won’t peck you.”
Tentatively, I reached forward again. The chicken screamed. I snapped my hand back. “Are you sure?”
Guy assured me, “Even if she pecks you, it won’t hurt. Once she realizes that she can’t scare you, she’ll stop.”
I stood there staring down this virtually defenseless five-pound creature and realized that my knees were quaking. I laughed incredulously at my own cowardice; it was suddenly inconceivable to me that I felt fear in the face of this little feathery lady armed only with a beak, a shrilly voice, and defiance. I squared my shoulders and plunged in, quavering, “Excuse me, little lady!” And she pecked me!
In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses at length the importance of becoming a part of the life cycle of the foods one eats, including the less enjoyable aspects of food acquisition, such as participating in the slaughter of animals if one chooses to eat them. Given that so much of what we as a society typically eat is purchased in vast, refrigerated commercial spaces, already portioned out, attractively packaged and cleverly marketed, it is virtually impossible for the average consumer to identify with all of the vast effort involved on the part of every single person engaged in the production of food—and particularly high-quality, wholesome food. It occurred to me as I jerked back my pecked finger and examined the broken skin with some degree of shock that, every time I’ve purchased eggs from the Choinieres or from any family farm, someone had to go out and brave these feisty little ladies for me. All I’ve had to do is hand over the money and continue on my merry way. I’m not the one out there caring for these animals, seeing to their needs throughout their lives and then seeing to their final needs after their lives have ended—every bit of it in a humane, responsible, respectful way. I’m not the one who’s under assault from vigilant and protective creatures when I’m trying to take from them something very personal and precious. Investing energy and intent in some of these behind-the-scenes aspects of food is allowing me to become infinitely more cognizant of my role in this cycle, as well, and it affords me sharper clarity into the widespread and varied impacts of the decisions I make with regard to how I feed myself and the amount of respect with which I regard my food—and those who produce it—and how it arrives on my plate. It is both truly gratifying and deeply humbling. I realize just how much more I have to learn. I realize just how much I have always taken good food for granted.
I trudged from hen to hen, gingerly groping beneath them to see what I could find, sometimes getting pecked and sometimes not. When at last we’d managed to find another dozen, we headed back to pack them up and put them in the car. I proudly showed off my first-ever farm-begotten battle wound to Guy, feeling somewhat more worldly for having acquired it and having a smug and vainglorious sense that I now possessed insider knowledge about life on the farm.
Guy then displayed his forearm, deeply grooved and scarred over with angry red slash marks. “These are from the meat birds two weeks ago,” he said of the scars. “They really put up a fight!”
Not a day has passed during this exploration when I haven’t learned a valuable lesson and when I haven’t gained an even greater perspective and a deeper appreciation for the true art that is farming … and gardening … and foraging … and food preservation. Not a day has gone by when I haven’t felt even more grateful for people like the Choinieres and all of the wonderful people we have met who champion efforts to care for their animals and their gardens and the earth and themselves … and all of us.
Years ago, I edited an Italian cookbook that regaled the simplistic approach to meal preparation. At the time, we were flexing our culinary muscles, so to speak, often spending hours laboring over a single, highly complex dish, experimenting with exotic, difficult-to-find ingredients, specialized tools and equipment, and unforgiving preparation techniques. We made some exquisite-looking dishes, to be sure, and we often had fun doing it, but after a while, the mere thought of preparing something—especially on a punishingly hot summer day—was discouraging. Enter the days of nibbling and grazing, which—while certainly a fine and probably healthy way to nourish oneself, particularly with foods like seeds and fresh crudités—became fairly uninspiring after a while. Food consumption became perfunctory.
Another important lesson learned as a result of the food challenge was a reminder of the primary message in that Italian cookbook I’d edited: food doesn’t have to be complicated or ridiculously time consuming to be scrumptious and good for you. With very fresh ingredients picked at their prime and a little creative inspiration, a seemingly ordinary tomato can transform into unsurpassed splendor. A dish of berries can be utterly divine. Cauliflower and a couple of other ingredients can create a dish that is truly out of this world. Recently, we were introduced to the merits of the saltimobocca produced by Agricola Farm, which is a simple concoction of two cuts of pork and bay leaves. It is almost beyond belief that anything that simple can taste that good. Black beans raised by Quill Hill Farm rolled in homemade tortillas made with nothing more than masa harina, water, and a pinch of salt and sprinkled with our own garden-grown cilantro and jalepeno peppers make an out-of-this world taco. Preserving “freshness” (the quotation marks are mine, because really, how fresh is a tortilla made months ago?) need not require cellulose gum, propionic acid, benzoic acid, phosphoric acid, guar gum, and amylase; just sit down and mindfully enjoy it as soon as it’s made. Mmm … fresh food.
That lesson has been refreshing, because indeed, we really do enjoy the ceremony and the good fortune of being able to prepare and then sit down to a wonderful meal, and remembering that the meal need not require superior culinary ability, costly equipment or ingredients, or even a flair for the avant-garde in vision or technique has been a welcomed gift.
Food is nourishment, and it is right to celebrate it. It is a great blessing to have access to an abundance of fresh, healthy food, and it is right to afford its consumption—preferably with good companionship—the proper respect it deserves. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is to champion simple, wholesome ingredients for their own uniqueness and for their contributions to a meal rather than scramble to find ways to overcomplicate them. Truly good food needs nothing to make it shine; good food shines all on its own.
One of the values that we definitely gained from last year’s food sourcing experience is a very great reverence for our food. While I wouldn’t exactly say that we had limited food, it is accurate to say that the project put in place certain parameters within which we acquired the foods we ate, and as such, ruining an aspect of a meal through improper preparation was a much bigger deal than it would have been otherwise; we couldn’t just go buy replacement ingredients, for example, any time we liked. If we burned something—or oversalted something, or dropped something—we were out of luck until the next time we could meet up with the farmer to get more—and that’s assuming the farmer even had more the next time we saw him or her. Eating locally and seasonally meant that we could only get that which was currently being produced and sold at market.
We deeply appreciated the opportunity to become much more grateful for what we had available to us. The challenge provided sharper clarity for us around the food security issues experienced by so many. Historically, it had been relatively easy to pay little heed to droughts and floods and early freezes and blights and countless other challenges faced by those who produce our food. During the challenge, considering that some of the foods we would normally have been able to incorporate into our meals were not making it to market because of prolonged inclement weather, it was far more apparent just how challenging it often is to coax food from the earth … and why it is so critically important to do what we can to protect the earth. Viewed from the perspective that to care for the earth is to care for ourselves, it seems so fundamentally obvious an idea that it’s difficult to surmise how we as a species ever managed to stray from it to begin with.
Every day is a gift … every bite is a gift.
Visiting farms and becoming acquainted with the families who run them and gaining a greater appreciation for their operation can be an eye-opening and even life-changing experience, and that was another truly transformative component of the challenge. I can say for certain that, as a result of this years-long journey of exploring and seeking out greater insight into the origins of the food we eat and the manner in which it arrives on our plates, I have grown infinitely closer to nature and to that which nourishes us. We have developed unique friendships and widespread camaraderie with many people we would otherwise not likely have had the grand opportunity to meet. We feel appreciably more grateful for good food and for our ability to acquire it from the amazing people who coax it from their environment.
Something else that was particularly fun and adventurous about the challenge was that we found that our process for food planning and preparation was entirely flipped on its head; where we traditionally planned a dinner menu or a variety of meals, wrote a shopping list, and then went out to stores in search of the necessary ingredients, we found ourselves anticipatorily scoping out our choices at a wide variety of farmers’ markets, collecting what struck our fancy, merrily lugging home our booty, and planning meals around what we’d selected. It broadened our horizons, stretched our creativity, and gave us a sense of humor and a greater sense of spontaneity. What sometimes felt akin to drudgery in the past simply became a happy culinary adventure. We learned a great deal—about what grows around here, about what’s in season at what time of year, about what some farmers recommend we do with certain ingredients. We tried foods like kohlrabi, chantrelle mushrooms, honeycomb, wild ginger and wild leek, and sour cherries that we’d never seen anywhere before, and as such, we had the incredible opportunity to introduce new options into our diet.
Difficult as it may be to believe, it has already been nearly a year to the day since the start of our sustainable eating challenge first chronicled in the blog Happy Simple Little Life, the jist of which was to only consume what we could grow and/or what we could procure directly from those who locally and organically produced it in what we could reasonably determine was an ethically and responsible way. Though the idea seemed a novel one when first it occurred to me, in fact, such challenges are routinely undertaken not only locally but also all around the country and around the world.
As was described in Happy Little Simple Life, the motivations for the experiment were many and were also an attempt to learn a great deal more about many things about which we’ve long been interested and somewhat conflicted. We hoped to gain a greater appreciation and understanding about a lot of issues and subjects as a result of this project, writing about them in addition to chronicling the project on a more visceral level—namely, the food, and perhaps the recipes, the challenges, and the surprises.
On a fundamental level, though, the primary motivations for the experiment included, in no particular order:
becoming better organic gardeners;
expanding our knowledge of new foods and of creative food preparation;
increasing our sense of self-reliance;
more fully appreciating the impact of our consumptive habits from physical, psychological, environmental, social, and political perspectives and reducing those impacts accordingly;
analyzing its potential impact on our overall health and wellness;
increasing our mindfulness of and gratitude for nutritious food and also understanding and appreciating more fully just how much we take for granted in these and in other areas of our lives;
increasing our quantity and quality of social interaction; and
learning what else we want to learn more about.
Implications of food transportation? Implications of manual production versus large-scale mechanization? Treatment of production employees? Treatment of and impact upon animals, insects, and the environment as a result of various models of food production? The costs of fresh versus processed food? Food safety and regulatory issues? Corporate control and widespread manipulation of the global food supply? Genetically modified organisms? Nutritional challenges and benefits of various models of food production?
Food has become, at least for many, the fourth taboo subject (joining the ranks of religion, politics, and sports) in many circles. What, how, and why a person chooses to eat—frequently subjected to a myriad of religious, social, physical, psychological, economic, and political forces—is often astoundingly complex and the cause of feverish debate. The ways in which we nourish—or abuse—our bodies with the foods we consume are deeply personal and are often sources for ridicule and judgment, and conflicting research, resources, and opinions about this vast subject—not to mention varying availability of foods—often serve only to compound the problem. Dizzyingly prolific and seemingly infinite information—and misinformation—about food and the endless impacts and implications of its production, transportation, and consumption creates a situation in which making decisions about food is often complicated, confusing, and cause for considerable inner, interpersonal, societal, and even global conflict. This is especially disconcerting considering that food has, at its very essence, the roots of physical and social nourishment; we need it to survive on a basic biological level, and societal structures have traditionally been strengthened by its collective production and consumption. It has historically been deeply associated with nurturing and celebration and hospitality. How has the issue of food—something so fundamentally important and so conceptually basic—become an issue of such ubiquitous contention and angst?
So what were some of our lessons learned through the challenge?