Dear Internet, I have something to confess.
I have not been able to eat 100% local for thirty days. Today is Day Twenty-Seven – so yes, I’m technically almost done – but to be honest I didn’t even make it two days into the challenge before needing to bend the rules.
My first trespass was with everyone’s favorite seasoning, salt. I hadn’t ordered my local salt far enough in advance, and while I’ve been able to make do without nearly every other traditional spice cupboard resident, I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the salt already in my cupboard when my Sal del Mar hadn’t arrived yet and I was already considering the possibility of having to step outside of my 100% local guidelines in order to eat cheese, or bread, or any number of other foods that I wasn’t making from scratch.
Of course, I was back on my best behavior once the local salt did arrive. And I was doing pretty good, subbing Queen Creek Olive Mill’s locally grown olive oil for butter, adding spice to dishes with chiles instead of pepper, making use of what fresh herbs I could secure (herbs are not nearly as easy to find at the farmers market as I expected they would be), and being sparing with my precious lemons (again, at this time of year, not the easiest thing to track down). There was the occasional slip-up: I purchased sausage from Double Check Ranch, not thinking about the fact that sausage is seasoned (and therefore very likely not entirely local), but ate it anyway because a) it’s delicious, and b) by the time I had made my modified all-local version of a shepherd’s pie casserole, there was no way come hell or high water I wasn’t eating it. There was also the appearance of Black Mesa Ranch goat cheese in my Tucson CSA share. After not having eaten anything resembling cheese for ten days, I was so excited I began slicing chunks of chèvre directly into my mouth alongside bites of an apple long before I remembered that I had meant to consider the non-local ingredients question further.
Last but not least, there was what I will refer to as “the night of blissful ignorance”: another couple, Chad, and myself were headed to the Brandi Carlile show at the Rialto Theater. We wanted to get dinner beforehand, and I knew Diablo Burger emphasizes sourcing local ingredients. When I explained my eating challenge to our server (I’ve developed a pretty excellent elevator pitch), she said, without hesitation, that everything they serve is locally sourced. Now, I know–and if you’ve been following along, I bet you know too–that that is probably not true. However, for the convenience of that night, I decided to go for it anyway, and enjoyed an amazing Señior Smoke burger, along with some fries and a Ten Fifty-Five Brewing Exo Roast Coffee Stout (whose non-local coffee beans did not even cross my mind until long after the beer had passed my lips). As I suspected, when I checked in later, I discovered that while their vegetables and meat are indeed locally sourced, the origin for the flour that goes into the English muffins Diablo Burger uses in place of buns is unknown. The baker for the buns is local, but their ingredients are not guaranteed to be. (And that doesn’t even touch where Diablo Burger sources their oil, spices, and of course, salt.) Still, I considered the evening to not be so much a failure on my part to maintain the project, but rather an example of how feasible eating local is out in the “real world,” and when asked, I was happy to report that it was going pretty well, and was surprisingly not a big deal.
Then Day Fourteen arrived.
I was slated to attend a friend’s birthday dinner that evening, and I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to eat entirely local. But, as Megan discovered over the course of her Unprocessed journey (and stressed to me when she discovered that I was planning on avoiding ALL foods with non-local ingredients, and thus negating my ability to eat basically any prepared foods at all), there’s something to be said for not letting the perfect get in the way of the good. True, I could avoid all non-local ingredients over the course of my experiment. But what would that do, besides proving that I am indeed capable of donning a habit and joining the Sisters of Eternal Devotion to Local Sourcing? The goal of this project isn’t actually for me to become a local-food-obsessed hermit, unable to engage in all social gatherings forevermore, but rather for me– and hopefully those reading–to learn some basic strategies and gain needing inspiration for increasing the amount of local food consumed in our day-to-day diets.
With that in mind, I called the restaurant, El Corral, to to find out what they’re sourcing locally, and I was pleasantly surprised when the woman whom I spoke with said she had asked the kitchen, and that everything was locally sourced. As with Diablo Burger, I sincerely doubted the accuracy of this statement, but assumed that it meant that at least their produce and maybe their meet was local, or at the least was delivered by local distributing company Merit Foods.
Unfortunately, the woman I spoke with was incorrect in her statement. When I arrived at the restaurant and asked our server for more specific information on what was locally sourced on their menu, her eyebrows shot up and she said she would need to ask the manager. She returned with an apologetic smile, and explained that the only things on the menu that might be local would be the fresh vegetables, as they come from Shamrock up in Phoenix.
I had known that at some point this project was going to leave me as the odd woman out at mealtime – the first time happened when I packed my own food to go to my family’s weekly potluck dinner. This night ended up being the second time: I ordered the broccoli, sweet potato, and baked potato side dishes, and had them hold everything but the butter, salt, and pepper – figuring, as I had when my local salt did not arrive in time for the start of the project, that it was better for me to eat flavorful food with minimum non-local ingredients than flavorless food that I didn’t enjoy. My small indulgence, however, did not really make up for the absence of steak on my plate or the nearly mind-melting temptation of my dining companions’ tamale pies – but I did make it through my meal with the project relatively unscathed.
The following ten days saw me stand by my almost-100%-local food consumption streak: There was one more visit to Diablo Burger where I learned about the limits of their ingredients’ origins knowledge (but I ate the bun anyway), I ate the pie my dad prepared using local flour and local peaches (but joined him in not inspecting the source of the agave syrup too closely – and straight up ignored the non-local butter I’m certain made an appearance in the crust along with the cinnamon and nutmeg mixed into the filling), and I did use some pepper on the chickens and vegetables I roasted for a family dinner, but that was it. I’ve gotten better at figuring out seasoning alternatives, and I even found a recipe for pancakes that didn’t require baking soda (an egg white meringue gives them the requisite light and fluffy texture instead).
Still, eating local in a world full of easily-accessed, non-local options is largely an accomplishment of willpower (and privilege, but I’ll talk about that in another post). And with willpower being a limited commodity, this week mine finally started to wear thin.
I started down the primose path innocently enough: it was Edible Baja Arizona intern Rebecca Goldansky’s birthday on Tuesday, and being left on my own with a baby while Chad headed off to a work conference in Vegas (yes, I’m jealous), had me clinging white knuckled to my willpower every time I passed a drive-thru. I hadn’t given in – though it meant I went without dinner two nights in a row when baby needs conflicted with personal nutrition needs – but when the server at Penca came back excited to inform me that actually, the nopales were local, and the masa for the tortillas came from northern Sonora, I didn’t bother to insist the kitchen construct my tacos without their standard (but non-local) pico de gallo, pickled onions, and cheese. I couldn’t leave Rebecca to drink alone, so I also ordered a small cocktail and conveniently ignored my opportunity to ask about the ingredients.
I’ve known from the beginning that I cannot be trusted to stick to my local eating guidelines if I’m out and about and hungry, so I’ve avoided putting myself in that situation always making sure to eat in advance or having something packed in my bag. But three days alone with a baby took their toll on my routine. On Wednesday morning I ate breakfast (local eggs, leftover meringue pancakes, and half a grapefruit from the farmers market), but never made it around to lunch. Traditionally, I would have nuked a couple of frozen burritos and been done with it, but last I checked even the most tree-huggy varieties of organic frozen burritos aren’t 100% locally sourced within Baja Arizona. Instead, right before leaving the house to head to the CSA, I grabbed a peach and told myself it would tide me over till dinnertime.
Oh the lies we tell ourselves! As anyone who has ever been in a food-restricted situation knows, heading out with a piece of fruit attempting to masquerade as meal inside your stomach is essentially lighting up a neon sign with the words GET IN MAH BELLY glowing directly above your brain. Luckily, before I pulled into a convenience store and impulse ate every preservative-laden taquito, hot dog, and egg roll spinning under florescent lights, I remembered Graze Premium Burgers. Their locally sourced beef (no word on the buns, veggies, cheese, or condiments, but hey, it’s better than taquitos!) allowed me to be at least somewhat local while rushing to get across town with a sleeping baby in the backseat. I’ll admit, I felt a twinge of regret as I snarfed it down, but the growing sense of fullness in my stomach soon quieted my conscience.
Of course, once I wiped the last of their burger sauce off my cheek, I had to face the question Edible Baja Arizona asked at the beginning of this project. What about eating local food–and only local food–for 30 days?
In the end, I couldn’t do it. I came dang close – with three days left in my official challenge, to have not gone a single meal or snack without having it be at least partially local (and usually entirely local) is nothing to sneer at, and I am committed to doing an additional ten days of eating local food sourced within only 100 miles of my house, as inspired by LocalFoodChallenge.org. That said, of course I’m a little disappointed in myself; I would love to be rounding out my month of eating locally with a gold star next to my name for never having messed up.
But let’s look at the big picture: I have gone from a woman who had never set foot inside a farmers market and routinely threw away spoiled vegetables from her CSA half share because she didn’t know what to do with them to one who can keep a fridge and pantry stocked with entirely local ingredients, figure out how to cook up pretty much anything you throw at her, and is rapidly compiling a list of her favorite people at the farmers markets (not to mention who has the best deal on eggs). Out of the ninety-plus meals I’ve eaten, five of them contained non-local ingredients outside of salt, and even if I include the meals I ate with non-local salt, that’s still roughly 98% of my food having come from within 250 miles of where I live. 98% percent of the money I spent on food going to support small local farmers and ranchers and grocers. 98% of my body’s fuel coming from not “Mexico” or “USA” or any other nation-encompassing label, but from towns whose names I know.
Have I been perfect? No. But I won’t let that stop me from celebrating what I have achieved: a total restructuring of how I get the food in my life, and the adventure is far from over. The Sisters of Eternal Devotion to Local Sourcing can judge me as much as they like; I am willing to call the progress I’ve made “good.”