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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Food for Thought: The Selective Pantry…

Food for thoughtMid-February. The garden is dormant, a shriveled ghost of  summer past. But the gardener himself doesn’t have to lie fallow. He can allow his thoughts to roam. Aside from the pile of seed catalogues that fuel my garden thoughts these days is a book I stumbled upon recently, a most thought-provoking book that has me thinking seriously about the relationship between my garden and me, its produce, and the global food supply chain.

People come up with a variety of  hair-brained schemes to prove something either to themselves or others. There’s the woman who vowed to live off Starbuck’s food for a year; some weirdo determined to seclude himself in his apartment for 365 days and let the internet provide his every need; and then there’s Jared and his Subway sandwich regimen to remain thin and svelte. Barbara Kingsolver, her husband and two daughters resolved to unlink themselves from the corporate food chain for one year and consume only locally grown produce and meats. Kingsolver then chronicled their experiment in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. A small farm in Virginia was the Kingsolvers’ laboratory, as was the farm community in which they lived. Granted such an experiment would be impractical to impossible for most American families who have neither the space, time, or knowhow to grow their own food. Granted, too, that the hectic pace of a day spent getting and spending allows little time for leisurely reading. And that’s a shame; food, it’s acquisition, preparation, and consumption are a necessary part of our daily lives. It would serve our families better if we all gave some serious thought to the relationship between our health and the food we eat. Reading Kingsolver’s book has given me a bounty of food for thought about food.

When I considered conducting a similar experiment to Kingsolver’s here on our property, I quickly dismissed it as infeasible. (Kingsolver herself found it impossible to begin the experiment at the first of the year; not much going on in a Virginia garden in January, so she started their comestible year in April.) Among the myriad of startling food facts in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, was one posed by Kingsolver’s husband Steven L. Hopp in the first of his several sidebar essays. According to Hopp: “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.” Although Hopp doesn’t cite his source of information, I have no reason to doubt the fact: the book’s final pages provide a hefty list of references.

Just one meal a week “(any meal),” I thought, as I looked out at a garden that looks pretty much the same as a Virginia garden must look this time of year and nearly dismissed the idea. But the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. “Any meal” once a week…could be as simple as a breakfast of a couple of poached eggs from friends who tend a flock of “free range” hens ($3.00 a dozen for large brown eggs so fresh you could slap them) and a bowl of home grown, canned fruit. But what about a main meal, a complete dinner, for instance? That wasn’t going to happen this time of year. The wife and I decided to compromise. After giving it some thought, we concluded for each evening meal at least one item would be produce either home canned or frozen from our garden. To the pantry or freezer we’d go for canned green beans or corn, frozen peas, canned tomatoes (dried tomatoes for the salad), frozen squash, a pot of shell beans…. One meal last week came very close to the mark: stuffed bell peppers, the frozen half shells from the summer’s pepper crop, the meat component (local hamburger from Kelso’s) seasoned with garden garlic and onions. A baked potato freshly dug from an overwintered hill. When you considered the ingredients in the tomato sauce, all of which were home grown, you could pretty much thank the garden for the entire meal.

While browsing Freddie’s produce section the other day, I noticed plump red raspberries glowing like rubies in their cozy, plastic clamshells. I thought about my own raspberry canes now desolate of leaves, buds at least a month away from swelling, and I recalled another fact from Kingsolver’s book: for every calorie in perishable produce (the raspberries), eight-seven fuel calories were required to bring those “out of season” berries from California to New York. To everything there is a season but not to the corporate food industry. Commercial jet aircraft have trumped “in season” produce. Regardless of which hemisphere is in bloom and producing, these days it matters not that the other isn’t: in twenty-four air hours you can add to your local shopping cart a container of fruit grown thousands of miles away. (And if your own rose garden is covered in two feet of snow, not a problem. Take down and dust off your Waterford crystal vase.You can easily fill and arrange it with a dozen fragrant tea roses picked the day before somewhere in Australia.)Consider this...

Buying local, Kingsolver’s maintains, stresses the concept of “neighborliness,” the idea that concern for your neighbor is on par with the same concern you give your own family. As a local food producer, you would not sell your neighbors what you yourself would not put on the table for your own dinner.

I can’t remember the last time I purchased a container of canned vegetables, and although our home canned produce lacks the variety one can find in the canned goods section of the local grocery store, when I go to the pantry to select a pint jar of green beans or corn, I know exactly what I’m getting: no labels necessary to inform me where the produce came from, what was done to grow and preserve it, what additives the contents were bathed in. As I open a quart jar of transparent applesauce, I can look out the window and see the tree that produced the fruit and excepting the fact the sauce contains just enough cane sugar to take the edge off the tartness, I’m guaranteed what I’m ladling into my yogurt is local and organic. Sure, there might be a few apple maggots blended in. So what. They’re my apple maggots, aren’t they? And they’re local, right? You can’t get much more organic than that.

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