The 100 Mile Diet: Part 2

Smith, A., & Mackinnon, J. B. 2007. The 100-mile diet: A year of local eating. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Regrettably, I did not get to finish more than two chapters in to “part 2” of my reading of the 100 Mile Diet. I read what I could in between plane rides to visit my family and friends in the West Kootenays, amidst the chatter of fellow excited Easter-weekend travellers in the crowded Vancouver airport. Once back at home, I was overtaken by heaps of food, desserts, laughter, story-telling, egg painting, hiking, movie watching, and other festivities. Before my departure back to Kamloops, my mother and I were even able to fit in some time in the garden, the sun being a warm and welcome companion to the still crisp air. Now that the frost is presumably gone for good, we were able to take stock of some of our perennial herbs from the year before, many of them already sprouting bright green and healthy, rooting their way through their pots in to the garden soil with impressive strength. With my grandmother’s help, we proceeded to cut back last year’s dry and dead remains. I couldn’t help but ponder that what is true for plants is sometimes true for humans: it is often necessary to let go of the dying parts of ourselves so that we can grow back anew; thriving.

I feel that this sentiment pairs well with James’ chapter on November. He describes the falling apart of his brother, Sasha’s, marriage, and life, in general; everything left in ruins. However, this allowed him the space to make his life exactly what he wanted it to be from that moment forward. As James remarked at the end of the chapter, “For the first time in years he sounded just like the brother I used to love to fight” (p. 191).

In the chapters October and November, James’ and Alisa’s relationship seems to be taking a turn for the worst. I found these chapters to be particularly heavy with emotion, and emptiness. Alisa feels that she is able to imagine “three dozen other potential lives, each representing some opportunity never taken or currently within reach” (p. 164), and she also describes how in some way her restlessness may actually represent a lacking feeling of being rooted in place. It seems she is unable to cut the cord of her “mundane” life with James, and simultaneously uncertain if this will solve any of her problems. James reveals a more uninhibited side to his character, which shows that he is also reaching his breaking point. He not only admits to binging on (completely non-local) beer and chocolate chip cookies during his stay with his family in Kamloops, but after his return he frankly states: “we need to get some wheat or I’m going to go out of my fucking mind” (p. 175). The overall tone is mildly discouraging; both parties seem to be growing weary both of their food project and of each other…What’s the point? Although I can relate wholeheartedly to Alisa’s feelings, which are growing stronger the older I get – I feel that there are so many potential paths to be taken that it is overwhelming to have to settle for just one – if there is any place I would be most alright with settling for, it would be where I spent my childhood, and where my parents’ spent the majority of theirs. I feel lucky to know that perhaps my feeling of “placelessness” has an expiry date, for when I’m done exploring the larger world I already know where my home will be (and always has been).

A final notion that stuck with me in “October”, Alisa’s chapter, is her discussion of Sahlin’s “fundamental observation [that] “Stone Age” peoples had discovered that leisure could be secured with minimum effort, rather than a series of technological marvels that have never yet liberated us from lives of hard labour” (p. 159). I personally think this idea is so timely to the world we are living in, and that is perfectly highlights the importance of local food to perhaps changing our modern, fast-food, fast-life driven society for the better. Lately, amidst travel and deadlines and material goods and the noise of the city, a simple life – with only what is needed – has become more and more attractive to me. And eating locally is one way that we can begin to manifest simpler lives. That is the point. The act of letting go of packaged foods, foreign foods, and chemical-laden foods is a rebellious act of laying a path to a new future, and for every unneeded thing that we can let go, space is created for family, friends and the good things in life to be savoured. I like to believe that I’m on this path and that I’ll get to thriving someday.

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A Little Taste of Heaven

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.

Early Friday morning, I was curled up in my fuzzy blanket reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, waiting somewhat impatiently for the phone to ring. I knew my bi-weekly vegetable box from Thistle Farm could be here any minute, over-flowing with organic produce, sourced most locally first, and then supplemented from farmers in California and Mexico as needed; at this time of the year the supplementation would be the majority of the box (in essence, not-so-local), yet there is still something so different that comes with receiving your produce this way than making a trip to the grocery store. However, what I was most looking forward to in this box was not the California kale or the Mexican avocado, but the humble red cabbage, grown at Thistle Farm itself, merely a half hour drive from my apartment. Approaching the end of March, I knew that Thistle Farm had been running low on their winter cabbage supply and I was eager to obtain one of the last ones for use in my local food dish, which included frantically emailing in a substitution during the wee hours of Thursday morning.

Suddenly I heard the ring. I said good-morning to the friendly woman delivering my food and buzzed her in to the building, meanwhile throwing on a sweater and some slippers so I could run down a floor to retrieve my box, fearing my bounty might be scooped up by a passerby if I left it to sit in the entranceway too long. Ah, there it was! I felt the anticipation hit a peak as I slid the box on to one arm and proceeded back up the stairs. It’s heavy this time! I remarked, silently praying that this meant a cabbage was concealed somewhere under the other organic goodies. And, alas, underneath a handful of carrots, a bag of baby Bok choy, and a bundle of parsley was my perfect purple cabbage, half the size of a typical store-bought cabbage and easily grasped in one hand. There was something magical about it that no store-bought cabbage could compete with, as I could actually picture the landscape, the soil that it was grown in, and the people whose hands had watered it, cared for it, plucked it from the ground, washed it, stacked it in their cold room storage, and finally, packed it in to a box with my name on it, so it could make its way to me.

I feel that it’s no coincidence that the chapter I was reading that morning was “The Market: Greetings from the Non-Barcode People”, an in-depth look at the many ways that meat and produce leave Polyface Farm to reach the plates of someone who has chosen to support a local, grass-fed farming operation. Some of these avenues include customers picking up broiler hens (and other meat and eggs) on the farm itself, purchasing Polyface products at the farmer’s market or a local alternative food store, or ordering it for delivery from a slightly farther away community in the form of a Metropolitan buying club. Local food from the Shenandoah valley is also delivered fresh to chefs and restaurant owners in the area, who provide a backbone to the creation of a local food economy. Whichever way is chosen, Joel Salatin (the primary farmer at Polyface) reiterates that what is important is people are choosing to “opt out” (p. 248). That is, opt out of the industrial food chain in exchange for something more sustainable, for the land, the animals, and the people who eat it. I found Joel’s belief that artisanal food does not have to compete with industrial food to be very thought-provoking. Simply put, farmers offering artisanal products have the quality and the consequences of their products speak for themselves; they have no need to lower their prices of to produce at a rate and volume equal to the industrialized food system, in fact doing so may be more detrimental to their movement than anything. There is one part that still frustrates me: for all the people out there willing to opt out, there are regulation in the USA that make it difficult for smaller-scale farm operations to be run up to their standards, which are modelled around big-business agriculture.

To be frank, these chapters brought up a lot of emotions and considerations for me, from happiness and awe, to anxiety, sadness, disgust and anger, which made its way back to happiness, and wholeness, again.

As a vegetarian, it was easy to oppose the practices of CAFOs from earlier chapters, but less easy to condemn Joel’s spiritual, cycle-of-life kind of animal agriculture, which works in tandem with nature, rejuvenation of the land, and the animal’s natural instincts to do what they love to do best and eat what is most health-promoting for their bodies. Chapters Ten and Eleven, which outline the many nuances involved in the raising of animals in the Salatins’ pastures make Polyface sound like possibly the realist, happiest farm on the face of the Earth.

Of course, that doesn’t change the pain I felt with reading “Slaughter: In a Glass Abatoir”, in which the slaughterhouse is much less a ‘house’ than an open-air gazebo completed with killing, boiling, gutting and de-feathering stations, of which the soupy remains are soon after shovelled into a decaying heap of chicken bits and wood chips. I read this chapter the fastest by far, with my toes squirming and my heart pounding, yet I couldn’t put the book down. I could feel Pollan’s dread and dis-ease with the butchering he was about to take part in, and as he described picking up a sharp blade in one hand and a docile chicken’s tiny head between his other hand’s fingers to put his technique in to action, my anxiety built. Then, as the blood gushed over his hand and hit his glasses I only felt…numbness. Faced with that imagery, I silently reminded myself why it is I could never eat an animal again, for I felt sick to my stomach imagining doing such a thing myself, and should I really be eating a creature whose death I can’t face?

But honestly, by the time I finished the last chapter, “The Meal: Grass Fed”, I was beginning to question my views on animals for consumption. Something about Pollan’s description of the “out of this world” (p. 271) brined and apple-smoked, barbecued chicken, with its superior profile of nutrients (ie. Omega-3s, beta-carotene, vitamin E, folic acid) from its nature-intended, grass-fed diet, had me extremely curious just how much more “chicken-y” this chicken would taste, and if it is really all that wrong to consume animals in the respectful way that many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors did for millennia. Pollan truly must have a succulent way with words, for it is quite the accomplishment to stir up these questions in someone who has been sworn off chicken for almost 5 years.

I must also praise Pollan on his use of character in this segment, for I found almost every character to be immediately loveable; for example, Joel for his fervent passion as a grass farmer and his intense attention to detail; his entire family in general for their simple, family- and routine-centred life; and Bev Eggleston, for his comic relief amongst a discussion of some daunting and timely issues (“Instead of mad cow disease, we’ve got glad cows at ease” (p. 247)).

A question I’ve often tried to navigate is: what is the most important thing, vegetarian food, organic food, or local food? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be either or, although more and more I’m being convinced of the value of local food. This doesn’t mean I’ll be rushing out for grass-fed chicken anytime soon, but perhaps I won’t turn my nose up at it either. For now, I will be savouring the morsels of local vegetables that I can, like sweet, mini onions, cream-fleshed potatoes, and crunchy, purple cabbage.

Plants that Harm & Heal

Hanson, T. 2015. The triumph of seeds: How grains, nuts, kernals, pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York: Basic Books.

For me, tea is so much more than a tasty beverage, and even more than an infusion of health-promoting benefits. Tea is a ritual. A meditation. A necessary component of starting and ending the day.

And now I see that the way that my tea-drinking habit connects me to the world of plants is even bigger than I could have imagined.

The tea I choose to start my morning with on any given day depends on what I hope to derive from it. Some days I’m looking for a subtle boost of energy, perhaps with tender, ground green tea leaves. Other days, especially if I’m feeling under the weather, I may prefer a soothing herbal tea with cooling peppermint, echinacea leaves and elderberries. And, if I’m looking for a combination of energy and warmth in the coldest part of the winter, my favourite choice is a spicy black chai tea, with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise and ginger.

The section of Thor Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds “Seeds Defend” (Chapters 8-11) is an in-depth look in to a few of the ways that seeds have evolved to protect themselves from those who want to feast on them and who may destroy their seeds’ ability to be dispersed and reproduce.

A theme that comes across to me in particular is how, because of these evolutionary changes, plants and their seeds are a huge part of our lives. As if this message hadn’t already been hit home with our reliance on plants for food, clothing, tools and other materials, I am also now much more aware of the ways that plants contribute to our modern medicines, pesticides, poisons, perfumes, the flavouring of our dishes, and of course, our most popular beverages.

Personally, I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but it cannot be denied that coffee beans have had a profound impact on human history, and continue to today. It is estimated that there are “1 billion to 2 billion daily partakers” (p. 146) in coffee drinking, and this coffee drinking may have “helped pave the way for both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution” (p. 150), by spawning “revolutionary thinking” both directly and indirectly. Directly, through the stimulation it provided (in great contrast to alcohol), and indirectly, through bringing like-minded, intellectual thinkers together in coffeehouses. Still today we see this trend in our “Information Age”, with the mainstream love of coffee that has developed in office workers, university goers, and technology developers at large corporations.

I find it fascinating that humans are not the only creatures lured by the stimulating effects of caffeine. In fact, Hanson describes how caffeine is used both as a repellant AND an attractant in coffee plants. Caffeine produced in its leaves and beans wards off pests such as snails, slugs and beetles, as well as releasing an herbicide that rids of nearby competing plants, while caffeine produced in smaller amounts in the nectar of the plant’s flowers keeps bees coming back for another reinforcing hit of energy. These busy bees sound an awful lot like “morning commuters [lined up] at their favorite espresso stand” (p. 149). Hmm, another way in which we’re a lot more similar to bees than we may care to recognize. 😉

Throughout these four chapters, about diversified topics of rodents gnawing seeds, the spice trade, coffee, and the Cold War assassination of Georgi Markov using ricin (a violent poison derived from castor beans), Hanson does a wonderful job of stringing them together in a relevant way. He does this using the common thread of his work with the almendro tree. In Chapter 11, I came to learn that the almendro’s seed pods are not something so foreign or unheard of as I once thought – they are tonka beans, once commonly used as a vanilla substitute, and which remind me of a “tonka vanilla”-scented candle I once had. Even more interestingly, Hanson explains that tonka beans contain a potent active ingredient – coumarin – so potent that its derivatives are used to make rat poisons, and a blood thinning medication used in conjunction with chemotherapy.

Why some of these plants have evolved to contain such harsh toxins is in some cases still a mystery being slowly revealed, yet it makes me conscious of one thing: the importance of respecting plants, in their infinite abilities to both harm us and heal us.