Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Finding, Feasting and Cheating

100-Mile Diet authors on feeding a movement, and writing the book.

By Vanessa Richmond 3 Apr 2007 |

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon.
  • The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Canadian Edition)
  • Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon
  • Random House (2007)

Before they were famous, before people around the world were on 100-Mile Diets, before Anthony Bourdain dissed them, before the people behind the 'No Impact' experiment cited them as inspiration…James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith had people coming over for dinner and nothing to feed them. They were in their cabin up in northern B.C. and the cupboards were empty. So they dug up some potatoes they'd planted and found some mushrooms, and an idea was sprouted.

The following spring, James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith decided to eat only food grown within 100 miles of their Kitsilano apartment. Motivated to reduce their carbon footprint after finding out that most ingredients travel about 4,000 kilometres before ending up on a Vancouver plate, they wanted to tread lightly.

The year started a little roughly. They didn't know how to find most ingredients they needed, and people in grocery stores often didn't know where produce was from either. Friends were supportive, but a few thought they were a bit nuts. And they didn't have many recipes: one night, MacKinnon made "green goo" for dinner.

But it went on to be "the best year of eating I've ever had," says MacKinnon.

Smith and MacKinnon talked to The Tyee about their new book that launches today.

On 'Inconvenient' eating:

"It has been really neat to see that global warming is so much at the top of people's consciousness due to Al Gore. But there's been an increasing consciousness about local food, which we certainly aren't alone in discussing, that's been building up since the 1960s with the 'back to the landers.' I'm not going to take credit for it, but people are far more worried about the lack of oil than they used to be and there's generally much more momentum. And experiments like these are becoming popular because they're concrete and positive. It's not about 'the environment is in trouble, save trees.'"

On 8,000 mile fish:

"What absolutely shocked me the most was that the discovery that some fish are being fished on the west coast of North America then shipped to Asia to be processed -- having pin bones removed, for example -- then shipped back to North America to be eaten. They're taken on an 8000 mile round trip because oil is cheap enough that the price of shipping them isn't greater than savings of labour in Asia.

"And California is a perfect place to look at the multiple ecological costs of food. They have dammed so many of their rivers, and restricted water so severely that some of the rivers no longer reach the sea. All so that California can be a global agricultural power. B.C. is awash with California vegetables, but they're produced in a very artificial manner in terms of their ecology."

On why beets beat dragons:

"In some ways, I think the interest in local foods is a countercurrent to the exoticization trend [on food shows and in some restaurants], which has been so dominant.

"But actually, within the restaurant and world of chefs, interest in local and seasonal food is becoming even greater than the old fusion trend of people grabbing whatever they can find with the least familiar name and throwing it in one dish together.

"Clearly, [with exotic ingredients] there's a lot of showing off going on. But more than that, in an ecological sense, that trend exemplifies everything that can go wrong with the food system: ingredients people have never heard of and have no familiarity with the production methods of, the ecological cost, the social cost, the accumulated food miles for each of those ingredients. In many cases, [exotic meals] have accumulated food miles as great or greater than the circumference of the planet.

"Also, I think chefs are finding just as much interest and excitement in seeing what they can find locally, working within the creative limitations of local foods. And on the real upside of the local, you're getting all of those ingredients so fresh and full of flavour. A freshly harvested beet is always going to be a better than a dragon fruit harvested before it's ripe and shipped 4,000 miles."

On 'No Impact' living:

"We've always been trying to decrease our impact in different ways, but we're not setting up anything as structured as the 'No Impact' experiment. Alisa and I ride our bikes almost everywhere. We have a car that we insure for 6 months of the year and then only use it occasionally. We compost. We recycle. But I do find it exciting that out of experiments like the one we did are coming more experiments. You need lots of people trying to figure this out."

On writers as gurus:

"[Recommending a course of action] puts us in an odd position because we're writers. We're kind of by nature, skeptics: people who prefer to hide in our garrets and type our messages. And we're both a little bit uncomfortable in the role of guru. But at the same time, it's a privilege and an honour to be able to have a lot of people thinking that we have something worth hearing. There's a pleasure in that."

On Bourdain's diss:

[In an interview with The Tyee, Anthony Bourdain said, "I'm always interested in the best food, wherever it comes from. But I don't think I could ever see myself, no matter where I was, even somewhere like Vancouver, with all of its abundant produce and ingredients, getting all Alice Waters. I'm just not a hippie. I don't care. I always enjoy food a bit too much to really have that kind of an agenda.

"Something like the 100-Mile Diet? Well great. But that's sort of like building a ship in a bottle for me. It's beautiful, but why? It's not something I'd do. I think they're nuts."]

"Our year started out [like a ship in a bottle]. We felt like we were playing. There was a certain amount of sacrifice, you know, pilgrims walking 1,000 miles on their knees. But when we'd figured out the puzzle of how to eat locally, it was a pleasure and an adventure. This is why we want to take it out and tell people about it. This is one of the very rare areas in this whole world of environmental responsibility and social ethics that isn't about sacrifice. It tastes better. By the end of the year, it was by far the best year of eating I'd ever had in my life because eating had become exciting again."

On 'green goo':

"It took a little while to figure out how to make good food. James has always been an improvisational cook, so he didn't really change much. He's more like, open the fridge, 'What can I eat?' Most people have the reverse approach -- flip through a cookbook and say, 'What do I want to make?' then go and find the ingredients in the supermarket. Instead of going to farmer's market then cooking based on what they find there.

"But early on, James made this tower of green goo that actually tasted good, from some greens and potatoes, but you'd never want to serve to anyone. But we'd never serve guests that. We'd always serve them things like sockeye salmon."

On not starving:

"We were definitely surprised by how much time it took to source local food. I was always phoning people or running into dead ends. But after the initial effort, it's easier. And there's more information around now too.

"It's less time consuming to eat locally from June 1st through end of September. But even in the winter, the key to ease is preserving stuff. When I open the cupboard, I have 20 cans of tomatoes and corn in there. It's even easier then than going grocery shopping.

"The diet definitely increased my skill set: things like canning, preserving. It was more difficult initially. And you have to build up the psychological will. So you say to yourself, 'I'm going to spend all day getting tomatoes, but then, that's done for the whole year.'"

On the 100-Mile family:

"We're definitely not trying to suggest this as a do or die kind of diet. Choosing to eat locally is not like choosing to be a vegetarian -- all or nothing. Also, it can work for families because going to a u-pick to pick berries or to the farmer's market or making pasta or canning are fun things to do.

On cheating:

At the end of the year, we gave up trying to be 100% strict all the time. But at home, we still eat about 85% local. We added beer and chocolate. And certain staples that are hard to find -- like lentils, rice and dried pasta so I don't have to make it from scratch every time.

[Editor's note: We asked Tyee readers to send in their questions. These are those questions with answers.]

Is there a 100-Mile Diet or an experiment like it going on in Quebec?

"There almost certainly is. We've heard from a number of people in Quebec.

"If people are interested in creating a group, we're encouraging them to get in touch with us, then we'll post that on our blog starting April 9th and see if we can help people contact each other.

"And there are a lot of local, food security organizations all over the place, like Farm Folk/City Folk in Vancouver, so they're the best bet for knowing what's out there now."

Where can I find local butter?

"Local butter is one of the easiest things to get. You could almost say any well-stocked grocery store, any specialty store, is going to have local butter. Vancouver is historically a great dairy area, so there's a lot of variety and availability. Avalon is one company that makes local, organic butter."

I was listening to an interview on the CBC with a researcher who did a comparative study of eating local food (100-Mile, etc.) and eating imported food. Based on his calculations he argued it often costs more in terms of environmental damage to eat local food. The reasons he provided were that local food is produced in smaller facilities than imported food, the local weather is colder and requires more greenhouse heating using gasoline generators, and the transportation cost is higher to ship 100 kilograms of food 100 miles than it costs to ship 100 tons 5000 miles (as an arbitrary example). How would you respond to that?

"How would I respond? My short answer would be this: 'Try it.' Start building more and more local food into your diet, and after a few weeks, ask yourself whether or not you think your new way of eating is consuming more or less of the world's fossil-fuel resources. Alisa and I have not a moment's doubt that the way we're eating now is not only more energy efficient, but is more energy efficient by a wide, wide margin. And that's while relying on the current local food system, which has been left with every possible disadvantage while our governments focus on global trade."