Posted by: Hil | June 8, 2009

Going Local

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The other day, I embarked on a culinary adventure which I was too afraid to photo document–preparing nopales from scratch.  Nopales are another name for prickly pear cactus.  They are traditional in Mexican cooking and they are one of my favorite vegetables.  Some people liken the taste of nopales to that of green beans, but they have a tart flavor that is all their own.  I’ve eaten nopales many times before, but I had never had the opportunity to try to prepare them myself.  But I saw some cactus paddles at the farmers market for incredibly cheap (Southern California is a desert, after all), and I decided to be brave.  It was a messy operation…you have to take off the spines with a knife or potato peeler and be careful not to slip when all of the sticky sap comes spilling out.  Then you cut them into strips and boil them.  I made a huge mess of my kitchen, but they tasted just like I remembered.  Tonight I enjoyed the leftovers of my labors along with roast chicken and cauliflower.  I also made one of my favorite farmers market creations:  strawberry and basil salad, drizzled with a little honey.  I have always loved the combination of sweet strawberries and spicy basil.  Back home, I used to wrap fruit stand strawberries in fresh basil leaves and eat them straight that way.  The strawberries are sweet enough on their own that you don’t need the honey for sweetness, but I like think that the flavor really ties the salad together.

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The Lemonator and I have been talking, and we have decided that we want to try to take steps to make our diet more local.  Local eating has always been important to me.  I grew up in what is probably the best place on earth to attempt a locavore diet: California’s  San Joaquin Valley.  The San Joaquin Valley produces a huge portion of the nation’s produce.  When I visit my mom during the summer, I can literally drive twenty minutes and get fruit, vegetables and nuts directly from a farm (pictured below).  I can walk two blocks and get my other groceries at a local, independently owned grocery store with an excellent butcher counter.  Some huge regional agribusinesses are based in or around my hometown, so a big portion of the dairy, meat and eggs in grocery stores in my hometown are local, as well. 

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My love of local food didn’t start as as an environmental or ethical position.  My family ate locally because local, seasonal food just tastes better.  I cannot eat grocery store nectarines, peaches or corn after having tasted the real stuff perfectly ripe and in season.  This, to me, is the first and foremost reason to eat locally.  But there are many reasons to eat locally.  For one, it’s inefficient and generally unnecessary to truck food across the country when local options abound.  For another, I don’t want to reward producers who grow food outside of California or even the United States to avoid the costs associated with our environmental, animal welfare, and labor laws.  Furthermore, the more local my food, the easier it is to figure out what I’m buying and who I’m buying it from.

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I still make an effort to eat somewhat locally, but I know I’ve become a lot more lax since moving to L.A.  There is no food available in Los Angeles that is quite as local and fresh as what I was used to growing up, so it was easy for me to throw in the towel and give up.  (I think I subconsciously concluded that if I couldn’t find a suitable source of perfectly ripe peaches, local eating was impossible.) 

I know now that I have been silly.  Sprawling metropolis or no, I live in Southern California where I can get citrus and avocados in the dead of winter.  The vendors here may not have the same things that my farmers market did growing up, but that’s okay!  They have plenty of delicious food, and I owe it to myself (and to them) to give local eating more of a shot than I have been.  Thus, the Lemonator and I have designated the next month a month of local eating.

I am not a local foods purist and have no intention of becoming one.  I have no intention of giving up my morning cup of coffee, and I do have a budget to stick to.  I don’t expect to change everything right away.  My goal is to become more aware of my options.  I don’t want to eat mass-produced and non-local foods simply out of habit.  In a nutshell, our plan boils down to figuring out where all our groceries come from, buying mostly local foods, and buying non-local foods only when we have an actual reason for doing so. 

What constitutes an “actual reason” for buying non-local foods?  In the end, that’s going to be a case by case judgment call.  We recognize that we are making completely subjective decisions, but they make sense to us.  For example, buying flour from a company in the Midwest makes sense–California doesn’t grow many grains and grains are easy to transport compared to, say, tomatoes.  Likewise, we have agreed that if we truly love something and it isn’t ever available locally, we can buy it–I’m not giving up coffee or chocolate and the Lemonator is not giving up his imported goods from the German deli.  A desire for out of season asparagus is not a good reason.  The fact that the most readily available brands of yogurt are from out of state is also not a good reason.  We have cows in California…there is no reason to be shipping yogurt in from out of state. 

There are no hard and fast rules but this is roughly how we expect things to play out:

  •  Fruits and vegetables:  There is really no reason why I should ever have to buy non-California fruits or vegetables during the summer.  Our first choice will always be farmer’s market produce.  When I’m at Whole Foods or Costco, I want to make a greater effort to read labels and figure out where the produce is from before I buy it.  We want to get as close to 100% of our fruits and vegetables from Southern California as possible.  We are in the process of investigating a number of local CSAs.
  • Dairy:  Local milk and butter are pretty easy to come by if we go to the effort to actually check labels.  We are in the process of making the transition to organic milk from pastured cows…we’re hooked on the taste and are just trying to figure out how to fit it into our budget on a regular basis.   My biggest sacrifice is going to be giving up my Greek yogurt…all of the major brands are East Coast!
  • Poultry:  We already buy our poultry from a California company.  We suspect that we will be eating a lot more chicken during this challenge.
  • Red meat:  It’s incredibly difficult to figure out where your meat is coming from (scary thought!), so I don’t think we will be purists with this.  We will, however, make frequent visits to the people who sell California grass-fed beef and bison at the farmers market and do our best to buy as much from them as our budget permits.
  • Fish:  Local isn’t my primary concern with fish–I care more about environmentally friendly fishing practices and safe mercury levels.  We will be following the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guidelines.  Local will be considered a plus, but I reserve the right to buy myself some wild salmon when it comes in season!
  • Eggs:  I am on a huge quest for farm fresh, pastured eggs.  I have come up empty thus far, but I did find a small Southern California brand that sells cage free Omega 3 eggs for a decent price, so I’m sticking with them for the moment.
  • Bread:  Food for Life is a Southern California Company, thank goodness, and we have some great bakers at the farmers market, so we’re okay here.
  • Dry and canned goods:  We do not plan to buy these strictly locally.  Our primary concern is buying perishable foods locally.  With preserved goods, the quality is the same whether you buy it locally or not.  Furthermore, because they don’t require refrigerated transport, they use somewhat less energy to transport than fresh produce.  However, we will read labels and do our best to minimize needless food miles.  There is no reason to buy roasted bell peppers from Peru (which I accidentally did yesterday!).

I am excited by this food adventure, and I hope some of you may consider joining me in some way.  Whether you want to fully immerse yourself in a 100-mile challenge, or just go to your local farmers market once a week, we’d love to have you.

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Responses

  1. Love this adventure you’re embarking on! I have to get myself to the farmer’s market this weekend.

    IMO, it’s bringing awareness to the issues that is key.

  2. Sagan–I completely agree. It’s not about being perfectly true to some arbitrary local ideal…it’s about recognizing the relevant issues and making informed decisions.

  3. […] were also running low on onions and garlic, so we picked up some of those.  In keeping with my local challenge, I think that over the next month I will document my grocery trips to give an idea of what […]

  4. […] in June, I set out to challenge myself to eat as locally as I could for thirty days.  The thirty days came and went, and I pretty much kept going as I […]


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