An Impossible Mango

I spoke at the Just Food CSA conference yesterday, sharing a discussion on being a locavore with Colin Beavan (No Impact Man). One woman asked us an interesting question about food and immigration: with thousands arriving in the U.S. from South America and the Caribbean, is it fair to ask them to give up their food culture just because many of the ingredients can’t be grown locally?

I don’t pretend to have a solution to all the implications of that question, but I do have a few thoughts on why this current migration is different agriculturally from those of the past.

Perennial plants can travel in either direction east-west, but not south-north. Apple trees from Europe, for example, did just fine when planted in New York because the climate is similar. Mango trees traveled easily from their origin in Southeast Asia to South America. But mango trees can never travel north because eventually they’d be killed when they reached a latitude with cold winters.

Crops grown as annuals are a different story. Tomatoes, originally from South America, do fine in the north because they are ready to harvest before winter kills the plants. But perennials such as fruit trees often need to grow for several years before they start bearing fruit–years spent outside in a climate like the one they evolved in.

There can never be a mango tree that grows in Brooklyn.

Of course food is not just a botanical reality check. It is also memories and culture and generations of cooks passing on their recipes. Someone from the Caribbean could point out that when Italian immigrants arrived here they kept eating their grapes and figs. So why shouldn’t someone from the tropics keep eating the tropical fruits that are part of their heritage?

Because grapes and figs can grow here (I have both in my garden). Tropical fruits can’t. The difference between a mango eaten in the islands and a mango eaten in New York City is the fuel it takes to get it here.

It seems harsh to say to one culture, go ahead and bring your food with you, while telling another that they are causing environmental damage by continuing to eat the foods they grew up with.

One thing that has changed in our world is that it is no longer wind in the sails of trading ships that brings us our imported food items. For people to continue their food heritage away from their country of origin, and for any humans to continue to trade items long distance as we have for centuries, we have to find ways that do not involve harming the planet that feeds us.

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News Bite on Leda the Locavore

The new edition of The Brooklyn Paper includes an interview that I did with Wendy Ponte about my 250-Mile Diet. You can read it online here tonight, or pick up a hard copy for free starting tomorrow, Fri. 21st. It’s available at numerous shops in da hood if you happen to live nearby. Not sure about her closing sentence, but I’ll take it with a sense of humor!

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My Garlic Shortage

Okay, it’s official: I will definitely run out of garlic before the next harvest of that crop in our area (mid-July). I have five heads left. It is no longer available at the farmers markets.

It wouldn’t have helped me to stockpile more from last year because what I have is getting dried-out and chewy and sprouting in the middle. This is a potential culinary crisis for me because a lot of my cooking includes garlic (hey, I’m half Greek). I considered granting myself a retroactive garlic exemption for The 250, but decided that would be against the spirit of the experiment.

Last Saturday the weather was almost spring-like, so I headed to Prospect Park knowing I would find plenty of field garlic (Allium vineale). I’ve had bronchitis for the past week though, so my stamina for foraging wasn’t good. I dug up one good-sized clump and called it a day.

The thing about field garlic is that it is an ephemeral that dies back to the ground when temps warm up. If I want it to replace the domestic garlic that is running out, I need to stock up by mid-May. The other thing about field garlic is that it is a lot more work than domestic garlic. It doesn’t form heads of large cloves. Instead, there are tiny cloves about the size of your little fingernail scattered throughout a tangled mass of roots.

field garlic

First, I washed all the dirt and pebbles out of the mass of roots. I saved the tender white parts of the stems along with the cloves because they are also good (think scallions).

Then I ran out of steam and dumped the semi-cleaned mass in a plastic container in the refrigerator until I could get back to them the next day. This afternoon, I peeled off the tan papery husks that were on some of the tiny cloves.

cleaned field garlic

After that I minced and froze them. The total yield was about what you’d get from two medium-sized heads of domestic garlic. Not bad for one clump of field garlic, but a lot of work and clearly not enough to get me through until July. I’ll be digging up more field garlic between now and when it goes dormant in late spring.

Given the option, I’d be using domestic garlic, which has been bred for large cloves and easy harvesting. But I like the fact that I knew a foraging alternative. And hey, it got me out into the park on a nice day and it was free.

Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules

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Just Food Conference

I’ll be speaking at Just Food’s 8th Annual CSA conference on March 29th as part of the Locavores segment in Workshop #2, which starts at 1:45pm. Lots of other interesting presentations and events at the conference as well, including a meet-the-farmers  talk. Two of the farmers who will be there are Nancy and Alan Brown of Lewis Waite Farm, who I’ve been getting most of the meat I eat from for the past five years. If you’re in NYC that day please do check it out. More information on the conference is here.

Almost Spring

Today the first flower of the season bloomed in my garden, a solitary crocus soon to be followed (hopefully, if the squirrels didn’t get the rest) by many more of its cousins.

crocus I took this first spring flower as a personal good omen since I finished writing my book manuscript today!

From my window the garden still looks brown and barren with just a few splotches of green here and there, but that crocus drew me outside with it’s cheery yellow-orange. This is the time of year when us gardeners are to be seen bent over at the waist inspecting every patch of earth for signs of life. I was pleased to note that the yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is backyarrow, as well as my tarragon and chives. The daylily shoots are only about three inches high right now. Another two inches of growth and they’ll be excellent in a stir-fry (we’re talking about Hemerocallis fulva heredaylily shoots–other lilies and similar-looking shoots are toxic and should be avoided. Know your plant ID before you turn it into lunch!).

Uninvited but not entirely unwelcome is garlic mustard (Alliaria esculente)garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is an invasive biennial brought over from Europe and currently taking over our city parks (and my garden). It is  delicious at this time of year as a salad green. In the mustard family, it blends well with milder early spring greens such as chickweed (Stellaria media). Once the weather warms up it turns bitter, but by then there will be lettuce available again at the farmers markets.

One of the things I love about foraging is that it fills in the blanks on the agricultural calendar. I’ll be picking garlic mustard and chickweed and other wild edibles from now until the first of the domestic crops appear in my garden and at the farmers markets. The wildlings go into a brief lull around that time, but that’s fine because by then I’ll be busy with the farmers’ crops.

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Local on a Budget

I been asked several times in the past week whether I am paying a premium for the local foods I’m eating. The assumption is that local products, especially if they are organic as well as local, are more expensive than what you can get at the supermarket.

The truth is more complicated than that. Some local food, especially animal products and value added things like milled wheat are pricier, no question. We’ve all gotten so used to prices deeply discounted by government agricultural subsidies that it’s hard to look at a four dollar carton of eggs and think that’s a fair price.

The idea of paying my local farmer directly rather than through a middleman who grabs most of the cash is appealing, as is the reduction in environmental damage, but at the end of the day I have to be able to pay my bills like anybody else. So how expensive has The 250-Mile Diet been so far?

from leda’s pantry

August through November I was spending about 20% more than usual on food, but most of the additional cost was because I was stocking up for the winter. I wasn’t just buying what I could eat each week, but also heaps of extra seasonal produce to can, freeze, pickle and dry. Since then I have been spending 20-25% less than I usually do at this time of year according to the monthly budgets on my computer. So it looks like I will come out about even by the end of The 250.

But that is only because I am not buying much food at all right now. I am mainly living out of my pantry, supplemented with fresh greens, apples, and root vegetables from the farmers markets and my monthly winter CSA share. Animal products and wine are almost the only things I am doling out any cash for. Some of the things in my pantry, including dried wild mushrooms, and wild greens and fruit in the freezer are things I foraged or grew in the garden, which brings my cost for the year down even more.

Could you do a 250-mile local eating challenge, or 100-mile as many are doing, without any food preservation, gardening, or foraging skills? Maybe if you live in California or Florida. Here in New York, I can’t imagine what this winter would have been like if I couldn’t dig into my home-dried and canned tomatoes, jars of blueberries and peaches, ratatouille, jams, chutneys, etc. I’ve got plenty of variety in my diet–my neighbor commented today that he’s been smelling all the good cooking coming out of my apartment and thinking that local must taste pretty good!. But most of that variety is due to my amply stocked pantry. I’ve also got fresh herbs to supplement all the ones I dried because I’ve been growing them in my window all winter.

winter rosemary and parsley

If you’ve got no inclination to learn food preservation or foraging, and no place to garden, but still want to eat a primarily local foods diet, take heart. It is still possible to get the majority of your food from local sources without stocking up. But without some pantry skills it probably does mean that you’ll spend more money.

I don’t think you can be a locavore and not cook, unless you live with a good cook and just do the shopping for them. But you can still choose the local apple over the one from the other side of the planet, and you can learn what is in season when for your area. Just by sticking to a seasonal menu you’ll end up with more delicious and less environmentally costly food.

So yes, it is possible to be a locavore on a budget, if you’re willing to plan ahead and spend more time and money during the harvest because you know you’ll be spending less of both during the winter.

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Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules