Life

Getting Canned

The 100-Mile dieters stock up, and wish for a legion of grandmas.

By J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith 29 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca

J.B. MacKinnon is an independent magazine journalist and writer. He is the author of Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), which won Canada’s highest award for literary nonfiction. He is also coauthor of The 100-Mile Diet (Random House, 2007, with Alisa Smith), a bestseller that is widely credited as a catalyst of the local foods movment, and I Live Here (Pantheon, 2008, written with Mia Kirshner, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons), a unique “paper documentary” about displaced people.

J.B.'s Connection to BC: Born is Sheffield, England, but raised in Kamloops, B.C., J.B. loves this province. (He has been down nearly every highway and a lot of the dirt roads, too.)

Reporting Beat: Environment, food.

Website: J.B. MacKinnon

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If the advocates of a raw-food diet are correct, Alisa and I will be dead by Groundhog's Day. Our 100-Mile Diet experiment in local eating doesn't offer a lot of fresh greens in January, a fact that is only now beginning to sink in. We've been dining on the horn of plenty for months, sometimes actually rubbing our friend's noses in just how bohemian a lifestyle we're leading. Now we see the storm clouds on the horizon. Even in Vancouver, the Canadian winter is long.

So: the house is filling with food. Not to mention the odours of food.

"No more sauerkraut," says Alisa, drawing a line in the sand. I look at her with disbelief. Ten days earlier, I had spent a night slicing cabbage until I'd raised a blister on my chopping hand, then gently tamping the salted slivers into a crock. Now we are eating the finished product, tender ribbons with a buttery richness totally unlike the store-bought version. I had just declared myself King of Sauerkraut, was imagining my fame, planning my empire….

Of course, I'd also been away much of the week that the sauerkraut ripened. It was Alisa who endured the growing cloud of fruit flies, the different shades of mold, the whiffs of a stink like sour meat. "It's hard to enjoy it knowing where it's come from," she says, moving the stuff around her plate with her fork.

Preservation society

Autumn, it turns out, is exhausting. Like most people raised since 1960, Alisa and I have never spent a lot of time preserving or storing food. A little jam every once in a while. Now, every corner of the apartment is at work. On a recent weekend we had hot peppers and sunflower heads drying on the balcony, herbs drying in a closet, 45 pounds of tomatoes waiting to be canned, onions curing in my clothes cabinet, two enormous salmon to be cut into steaks, and spinach, cauliflower, carrots, collards, Brussels sprouts, basil and edamame waiting to be blanched and frozen. Ah, and a second cabbage ready for the crock.

Preparing for a 100-Mile winter is like adding a part-time job to our full-time lives. Like most Vancouverites, we're stupidly overscheduled most of the time. Adding hours of gleaning and canning to our days has more than once pushed us into the wee hours of the morning. "Sometime in the winter, this will all pay off," says Alisa like a mantra. "We won't have to buy any food; we won't have to cook any food." In the meantime, though, tempers flare as midnight ticks past and there are still 48 ears of corn to husk, blanch and cut into niblets for freezing.

We are beginning to realize that a 100-Mile Diet doesn't only hint at a more ecologically sustainable way to eat and drink. It also points to a deeper shift-an actual change in life patterns.

Not that all this harvest-moon hard labour is nothing but misery. There is, to begin with, something about acts of self-sufficiency that seems to please the Paleolithic mind. More directly, my inner miser does a dance every time we score yet another sweet deal on a bulk-load of local food. Twenty-five pounds of long-keeping organic onions for a buck a pound. Fantastic organic corn from Surrey, $44 for nearly 200 big ears that changed all our day's (and night's) plans when we learned that corn's taste and nutrition crash rapidly unless it is frozen the day that it's picked. Two dozen meals' worth of coho for less than $50 on a handshake with the Ladner fisherman who caught them . . . U-pick organic tomatoes, 75 cents a pound and they threw in a watermelon and cantaloupe . . . organic blueberries for $2 a pound from a small Vietnamese Buddhist temple where they fed us grapes for free.

That final visit was a particularly telling one. We stopped for the blueberries (we spotted the hand-painted sign in South Burnaby while driving farm-friendly backroads) and ended up leaving with fresh ideas on our minds. Hanging from a trellis alongside the berries was a kind of long, tromboning squash I'd never seen before. All I can say is that in Vietnamese, it is pronounced something like "wach"-and that the woman wouldn't sell me one because it was all for use in the temple.

It was a reminder that what most of us think of as "local food" is just beginning to be explored. British Columbia's development over the past three hundred years has been dominated by European influence to the point that the most familiar market vegetables are like the ingredients for a good German Eintopf (literally "one pot") soup. Trolling the farmgate gardens of South Burnaby or buying from the Maya Demonstration Garden Project, we encountered a much different homegrown cuisine, loaded with chois, fuzzy melon, chayote squash, mo gua, yerba mora, amaranth, Asian mustards, Andean radishes, and some (for me) unpronounceable green that instantly thickens a broth. All of these foods, and many others, grow perfectly well in British Columbia.

World of choice?

With star fruit and durian now available at the mega-mart, it is easy to believe that turbo-capitalist globalization is the best -- perhaps the only -- way to diversify what we put on our plates. In fact, these forces have tended to diminish our collective food culture. According to Edward O. Wilson, the man often called the world's greatest living biologist, some 7,000 species of plant are known to have been used by different human societies throughout history. Today, just 20 species provide 90 percent of the world's food. In his book The Diversity of Life, Wilson points to fruit as the greatest illustration of a "pattern of underutilization." About a dozen familiar species dominate the northern market and have been heavily adopted in tropical regions as well. Meanwhile, some 200 additional species are currently cultivated or collected in the tropics, and at least 3,000 others are waiting to be put into use. All told, at least 30,000 plant species are known to have edible parts.

Keep those figures in mind the next time you shop the "plentiful" aisles of your local globalized grocery.

Will we ever have mass markets for 30,000 plant foods? It's unlikely, if not impossible. That sort of diversity only makes sense at the small-scale, family or community farm and garden level. Moreover, it requires a profound awareness of place and accumulation of autochthonous knowledge.

Which brings me back to this idea of a deeper kind of shift. Facing the challenge of winter, I'm reminded above all that a 100-Mile Diet demands a 100-Mile Culture. Despite the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, the internet community isn't enough. I want to share the load -- to sit around drinking and talking with friends, all of us shucking corn or peeling boiled tomatoes. I read with envy about the community canning kitchens that were common during World War Two. I find myself wishing for a legion of grandmas to teach me the tricks that have fallen from the modern radar. I want everyone to be doing this, so that we could come to a simple agreement: It's harvest season. The world is going to have to grind to a halt while we fill up the freezer and smoke the fish. And that smell that's filling every apartment in town? That would be the sauerkraut.

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the 100-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk.

Read the whole 100-Mile Diet Series.  [Tyee]

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