Wednesday, May 14, 2008

what I'm really passionate about these days

If we're friends on Goodreads, a month or so ago you probably saw my rave review of Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (and I was happy to see that a lot of you added it to your to-read shelf!)

If we're not friends on Goodreads, first of all you should get on Goodreads and then add me as a friend, because I like knowing what you're reading.

Anyway, this book is my new favorite book. I checked it out from the library a month ago, devoured it, renewed it a few times while I thought about it, and then I started reading it again a few days ago (after I finished my ten-day Harry Potter marathon. All seven. It was delightful, especially since I only allowed myself to read when the children were asleep and I had to be in bed by eleven).

I love this book. It's very thought-provoking, especially because it touches on a subject that I've been researching a lot lately. I love Kingsolver's works to begin with (especially The Poisonwood Bible and Animal Dreams), and I enjoyed this book every bit as much as those two, if not more.

Essentially, this is the story of a year in Kingsolver's life (and that of her husband and two children) spent as a "locavore," i.e. eating nothing that originates further than 100 miles away from her home. The book is part memoir, part nonfiction account of what we're doing to our planet and ourselves when we consume pesticide-laden food grown thousands of miles away, processed, packaged, and flown to our supermarkets. I admit I'd never thought before about the "cost" of said travel--Kingsolver notes that it takes 87 calories of energy, on average, to process, package, and deliver 1 calorie of food. As a sometimes vegetarian, I was also interested to read her assessment of the cost in animal lives of vegetarianism. Her descriptions of organic farming were fascinating, as well as her assessment of factory-raised everything (did you know, for instance, that free-range eggs have half the cholesterol of regular store eggs?)

This is one of those books like Freakonomics that I think everyone should read just to be informed, even if you're not really into the whole local eating or slow foods movement (which, however, you may find yourself leaning towards after you finish the book). More importantly, perhaps, it's an easy, fascinating, and illuminating read. Kingsolver's characteristic lyrical prose carries through here just as it does in her novels.

I will admit that I've gotten pretty passionate in the last six months about our food choices. At our house, we no longer eat anything containing partially hydrogenated oils or high-fructose corn syrup, and I'm now trying to cut out MSG. And buy locally. Like this beautiful asparagus, for instance, which was harvested this morning, purchased at the farmer's market this afternoon, and sauteed in butter and eaten for dinner this evening.

It does seem a little faddish, I know, and there are times (like today when I spent about half the day in the kitchen chopping ingredients for salsa, rolling out tortillas, baking apple-walnut whole-wheat bread, and strolling through the farmers' market) that I wonder if I'm making too much fuss over it all, but then I realize that if I'm going to make a fuss about something, worrying about what I'm feeding my family every day and whether it's laced with hormones or antibiotics or pesticides is probably a good thing to worry about. Additionally, there are several things that really appeal to me about locavorism:
  • supporting local farmers
  • not supporting concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO--you know, where the animals are stacked on top of each other). Did you know that 1,152 chickens can be fitted into a 6x8 room?
  • reducing my food's carbon footprint--the difference between buying something from someone who lives two miles away and food that was grown in Chile and took a ton of high-priced gas and packaging to get to me. This is becoming especially important to me as gas (and food) prices climb.
  • food that is simply healthier

No, I don't buy organic fruits and vegetables, I haven't sworn off CAFO meats, and I don't refuse to buy anything that came from outside the state, but I feel like I'm putting myself in a position to make more informed choices. I'm researching a lot about what local growers and farmers are raising and what's available around here. I've doubled the size of our vegetable garden. I've had really interesting conversations with local beekeepers and poultry farmers, and it's been a fascinating learning experience. If you want to find out more about what's available in your area, I think the best starting point is Local Harvest. I found farms in my area that I didn't know about, and I'm pretty well-informed after the last couple years of frantic summer canning and preserving.

Here's what I think the best thing about locavorism is: the food is tastier and healthier. Today I saw with my own eyes a nine-month-old baby chomp her way through about twenty inches of asparagus. And possibly even more miraculous--her older sister wasn't far behind. Miracles do happen!

Your thoughts?


Victoria said...

I think I have caught a similar bug as you (or seeing the same trend and jumping on the wagon) but I am totally inspired by your many posts about making bread and cooking all these lovely treats for your family. I have made a goal to do a small portion of this now - but in single portions.

I love the whole buying locally, with all these great New England farms I just can't make any good excuse not to - I just need to get out there. I must say I remember going over to your house to play and your mom and dad always cooking natural food I guess you just were taught all about this stuff from the beginning. ;)

Katrina said...

I have a question: what is the price difference in your area for locally grown food at the farmers market? We went to our farmers market on Saturday and were kinda shocked at how expensive everything was. It was WAY more than the grocery store. Any thoughts on how to buy local on a budget when you can't have your own garden?

Joanna said...

I'm actually interested in the price difference, too.
I guess if you imagined everyone eating only local food, then we here in Indiana would never eat citrus fruits. I am trying to think of some others. There would also be a lot of people in the transportation industry looking for jobs.
It's interesting to think what we would cut out of our diets for the good and the bad.

Rachael said...

It's definitely more expensive to eat locally. Kingsolver says it's not, and she says nobody belives her on this--I don't really believe it either. It just seems to be more expensive to buy better-quality stuff, which makes sense, if you think about it.

Frankly, our family can't afford to buy locally all the time, which is why I end up doing it pretty selectively--for instance, the asparagus I bought yesterday was $3/lb, and I can get it in the grocery store for about $2/lb. I did see other vendors at the market selling it for $4/lb, so definitely shop around between vendors.

With that said, for some things I think it's worth the taste--asparagus, for instance, which basically starts to get bitter after the first day it's cut. For other things, it's way cheaper for me to buy them here--the last two years I've driven out to fruit farms and bought apples for 30 cents a pound, peaches for a dollar a pound, blueberries for 1.50 a pound, and strawberries for 1.08/lb. I forget how much the cherries were, but they're pretty cheap too. It just depends on what's in season and how of it there is. With that said, I've noticed some skyrocketing prices over the last two years--corn here used to be 13/$1, and now it's more like 4/$1. Eeek! Ethanol right there.

But the farmer's markets, in my experience, are more expensive than buying them directly at the farm or wherever. For me, I'm willing to pay a little more for something that tastes better and that's also supporting a local grower. Then again, like I said before, I definitely can't afford to do it for everything. So I just try to pick and choose between the things that I can really tell a difference (like tomatoes, asparagus, fruits, etc.)

And Joanna, you're right on the different repercussions it would have. It's totally changing the way you think and buy and eat--I don't know if I could commit to no bananas or oranges. But then again, if I canned three times as many peaches as I normally do...maybe I could. And you have a good point about the transportation industry--you always hear about farmers losing their jobs because of industry, but we don't ever really talk about all the people whose jobs have been created in transporting and packaging commercial foods.

Rosalind said...

I am very excited to visit you. I am very excited to see you--and the food. Elise and I found an AMAZING recipe for truffles--they are soo good and rich and addictive and soo easy to make. ...Interesting how i put this in after you've been talking about eating healthier foods--but hey, it still fits into the homemade category, so it works.
and i have to go study for some test, and memorize a loong poem-- "but soft! what light through yonder window breaks? it is the east! and juliet is the sun!..."--AND a script for drama--in the next half hour. :) ah, i will miss not being able to procrastinate when i'm in college...

love you rachael!! can't wait to see you and your garden and your cute little stinkies!!

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