One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally
by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon
Harmony Books $24
Reviewed by Ruthie Thompson-Klein
“Back in the car, we made our run for the border. James would do the talking, of course. I would just try to keep my eyes off the bag that held a huge round of wrapped cheeses …”
Here’s an “eat locally” tale with native flavor. If you’ve already explored Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, check out this one. Vancouverite journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon necessarily created a meal from the wild while stranded in the B.C. bush. From that delicious and memorable feast of fish, mushrooms, and mulled apples, Smith and MacKinnon resolved to sustain a way of eating locally. The 100-mile diet was born.
Smith and MacKinnon mapped a 100-mile circle around their Vancouver home and began their search on the Equinox, March 21. Armed with WWII-era cookbooks and a group of maverick farmers and fishers, they stepped outside the global economy and got a wake-up call. The easy questions of provenance solved themselves quickly: local wines, berries, honey for sweetener, and potatoes in every form imaginable as a diet staple. The challenges were more difficult. The plenty of incessantly refreshed supermarket shelves vanished overnight. To most grocers “local” means regional or even “CDN/USA grown.”
The excitement of locating a grain miller close by was deflated upon learning the wheat came from 800 miles away. The second flour attempt was soured by finding evidence mice had visited the stored remains of an experimental wheat variety. Designated household chef MacKinnon creatively steamed broad slices of turnip and unsuccessfully passed them off as sandwich “bread.” At another low point, their community garden plot was producing only chickweed and dandelions (which they ate). The October day local flour entered the house was celebrated with marathon baking.
Throughout their year-long journey the authors distilled the facts and progression of our modern food system from historical indigenous diet to today’s dependence on monocultures and the oil economy. Among other unsavory facts: Millions of pounds of seafood from northwest waters are sent to China for processing then imported back into the US and Canada. Even our Dungeness crab may travel 8,000 miles round trip. When MacKinnon took time to prowl the docks he found a fisher who still traveled the dwindling Salish Sea with troll lines and traps; no seafloor damage or bycatch. Said MacKinnon, “Some people have a stockbroker or a drug pusher; I now had a fisherman.”
With chapters organized by month, Plenty delivers delicious ideas, exciting cross-border food excursions, interesting recipes, and a seasonal take on the challenges of eating locally. The time, energy, and travel required to find local food are worthy of consideration. Though Smith and MacKinnon conclude we have “an insane food system based on cheap oil,” they prove it is possible, with some planning, to build a better system close to home with delicious and satisfying results.