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Excuses, excuses: Eat local wherever you live, on whatever your budget

(article, Sarah Gilbert)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] People sometimes say that my local-food project is inspiring them to bake bread, eat potato-leek soup (since it's so totally in season!), or shop at the farmers' market. But way more often I hear some variant of "I can't do that here," or "I can't do that on my budget."

"Here" has been everywhere from Florida to New Jersey to Minnesota. And though I honor the torture of tight purse strings, I'd be willing to bet half the budgets in question are no smaller than my own. I hate that you are not living in the Pacific Northwest, where so many farmers and market owners are reinventing the meaning of "the Western diet." If I could, I'd pack you up and move you here, myself. 

But wait.

If this were a classroom, about now I'd be raising my hand so hard I'd be bouncing up and down in my seat, ready to rebut. I'll try not to get all self-righteous on you. I don't want to seem like an elitist. And everyone has his own point of incredulity: the place where, no matter how passionate a value set, it doesn't make sense to adhere so strictly. Call it the bacon rule: most of my vegetarian/vegan/Jewish friends admit to the occasional bacon craving, a yen that is often satisfied by that ultimate out-of-season treat, the BLT. Ohh, ooooo, ahh!

Setting the bacon aside for a minute: New Jersey? Florida? Even Montana? You can do it. For two reasons.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A busy cooktop."] 

First: When we start to eat locally, we do not mean that you must draw a pencil line on a map around your neighborhood and, henceforth and forever, not go outside of it for any sustenance. Naturally there are some foodstuffs which, in a modern society, are necessary to your way of life. Coffee, maybe; spices, most probably; citrus fruits, baking powder, molasses. I do not suggest that you create such a rigid limit for yourself that those items (if purchased from the most sustainable, fair-trade, organic, possible source) should not be allowed. 

And let us not forget the modern convenience of your freezer. It's quite likely that you can get blueberries (which grow nearly everywhere in the U.S.), broccoli, spinach, strawberries, peas, corn, and all sorts of other local specialties frozen any time of the year, even if you were remiss this past harvest season. A little bit of Googling and I've found Seabrook Farms, a family-run frozen-vegetable operation in southern New Jersey. See? Asparagus spears! Black-eyed peas! Broccoli rabe!

Second: No one said that you could, or should, eat exactly the way you eat now, only source everything locally. I'm sorry. It's not that easy. But it is easy, in some ways, because when you think about it, people ate this way for thousands of years without the benefit of Cuisinarts, or the Food Network, or the aforementioned freezers. And please. Use your imagination. It is not just potatoes and turnips. It's winter greens and butter and cream and whole-wheat flour and leeks and onions and all kinds of meats, a bounty of meat. I hope that you are not a vegan reading this. I honor you, but it will be hard.

With just the produce that's available almost anywhere in the U.S. fresh and in season, you can make French onion soup and shepherd's pie and cured ham sandwiches rich with aged cheese and cinnamon rolls and baked potatoes loaded with chili, sour cream, and farmhouse cheddar. You can make crepes filled with ricotta and potato gratin and salads of roasted beets, walnuts, and blue cheese. Quiche with ham, goat cheese soufflé, kale frittata. 

Have you ever roasted a chicken? First you brown it on all sides in a big skillet with 1/2 cup of fresh butter, then put it in the oven with nothing but lots of sea salt and ground pepper, and then take it out and peel off the crispy flavorful skin and ohhh . . .

You will not be living deprived lives, no, you will be exulting in the rich flavors and luxuries of winter! Oh, caramelized onion and blue cheese focaccia! Oh, apple pie!

It is not for you to look to the Californians and begrudge them their winter lettuces, their orange groves. No, you, you are living in a kingdom where butternut squash turns into caramel in your roasting pan; it needs nothing but fat cubes of butter and salt. What need have you for raspberries in January? You are the sultan of garlic-braised Swiss chard!

If you're still not convinced, I have nothing that I can say to you other than "Just try." Don't commit to anything, just yet, but try. With the faith of someone who has recently and for the first time ever eaten a parsnip (and liked it!), I know that it is possible.

Now. Money. I will at some point go over the past few months' receipts from Before Barbara (it was her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that pushed me over) and After Barbara and I'm sure that I will prove to you that my not-enormous food budget was not changed much, if at all, by my local-eating project. I don't have proof yet. But let's talk about that roasted chicken I mentioned.

Last Monday evening, I roasted that chicken. It cost $8.52 at Trader Joe's; it was a natural, sustainably farmed, organic chicken from Ranger, in nearby Washington state. It was, in all likelihood, the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten. 

On Monday night, my husband and I stood over the oven peeling off the crispy skin and licking our fingers in ecstasy, and then ate hot roasted chicken with roasted beets (less than $1) and the potato salad I made of local "huckleberry red" potatoes ($1), sliced shallots ($1, ish), mayonnaise, and a tablespoon of cider vinegar (an exception, not local, but also not that expensive). 

On Tuesday, I made chicken pot pie with the addition of fresh puff pastry from a local market ($2.99 and I only used half), local heirloom carrots ($1), and more onions and potatoes (50 cents or so). I used a little butter, flour, and chicken fat to make a sauce, with a couple of leaves of sage from my garden. 

On Wednesday, I made French onion soup using those onions (maybe $1), broth from my chicken, a little aged cheese (expensive and not local, but only a dollar's worth, and it was a gift), and a slice of organic whole-wheat bread I baked myself for croutons (far less than $1). 

On Thursday, barbecued chicken pizza with sauce I made from canned tomatoes (not local, but I hope to can my own next year) and organic brown sugar (about 25 cents) and chipotle pepper, and caramelized onions I made while the chicken was roasting on Monday, the same bread dough. 

You see? Certainly, lunches required bread, cheese, milk, and butter, but I can say without hesitation that I cooked four days' worth of meals for about $50. And they were, each one of them, better than the one before, some better than meals I've eaten in restaurants for which I paid upwards of $50 just for me.

Sure, I made it all with the sweat of my brow and the dice of my chef's knife. But I don't remember even once thinking, "Boy, this is way more work than I expected it would be!" And I never wished for Totino's Pizza Rolls. Not me.

Perhaps you live on $50 a week, and so spending $9 for a free-range chicken seems the height of foolishness. And perhaps things would have to change in your life to make it feasible to do what I did. But oh, what things! There is a danger that your life will be better than you ever dreamed.

reference-image, l