Eating In | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published September 6, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

When I was a kid, I loved to sit with a makeshift sewing basket, "working" on joining fabric scraps together. I imagined I had been born a century too late, and longed to get back to the horse-and-buggy era of Little House on the Prairie. So when some of my friends proposed eating only locally grown foods for a month, I jumped at the chance to sample a slice of pioneer life.

The idea of eating locally coalesced into a participatory consumer movement last summer, after four women in the San Francisco area publicized their own "eat local" challenge. Since then similar groups have formed in Oregon, Maine and Vermont, among other states.

There's a reason the idea's catching on: Contemporary comestibles travel an average of 1500 miles from farm to plate. In an age of rising fuel costs and environmental concerns about climate change, it makes sense to question this system, and to view issues of global supply and demand through the prism of your own kitchen. The Eat Local Challenge lets average folks do just that, with a built-in support network, for a focused period of time.

I participated in the Eat Local Challenge for the duration of August - 31 days of consuming only food and drink made from ingredients grown within a 100-mile radius of Burlington, where I live.

It might sound hard to go without coffee, tea, citrus or chocolate for a whole month, but I had lots of support: In addition to my core group of 10 or 12 friends, about 130 people stepped up to the challenge in the Burlington area, and more "localvores" joined regional groups throughout the state.

August was the designated month for the Vermont challenge because that's when fresh local produce is at its most bountiful. Blueberries, currants, raspberries and melons are in season, the first apples, potatoes, corn and carrots arrive, and tomatoes, green beans and lettuces are still available.

After a quick trip to the Burlington farmers' market on July 29, I hit the ground running. Some of my first meals involved grilled corn-on-the-cob and locally raised ground beef and ground turkey, with a side salad. This combination remained a tasty option all month long.

But while it was possible to eat very well without spending hours in the kitchen, I soon discovered that not having access to certain prepared foods made preparing others tricky. With lemons, citrus and commercial vinegars off my list, I had to figure out another way to make salad dressing. Experimenting with available fruits, I

discovered that red currants mixed with salt, oil and herbs make a great "vinaigrette."

I planned a three-bean salad that required actual vinegar, though, so I made some from apple cider. It was surprisingly easy: cover cider with cheesecloth in a bowl, and wait a week and a half. Success with this encouraged other fermentation experiments - sourdough bread, sauerkraut made with fresh cabbage, and blueberry vinegar that went into a lemonade-like drink. Other time-intensive dishes included a tomato-bean-eggplant ratatouille, baked slowly overnight in the oven, and potato gnocchi which took two hours to make from scratch. (Dinner was kind of late that night.)

Some time-intensive dishes didn't seem hard, partly because they were inspired by a string of themed potlucks organized by my localvore posse. These gatherings turned out to be one of the highlights of my month. The people I knew who participated in the challenge gathered regularly at each other's houses to eat our way through a list of dishes we wanted to try local-style.

It was fun to rise to the occasion. Several barbecues revealed what could be done with locally produced tempeh and grilled veggies. A brunch blowout yielded currant jam and multigrain waffles made from flour that had been locally grown and milled. A mid-month, all-dessert potluck satisfied my sweet tooth with fresh fruit, homemade ice cream, cakes and custards.

Every few nights, I got the chance to hear about, and taste, what my friends were concocting: cornmeal crackers, dill-and-garlic fridge pickles, Egyptian-style honey mead, blueberry buckle. Sometimes we cooked together. At the end of a dinner and granola-baking party, the pile of crunchy provender was divvied up into take-home bags for the next morning's breakfasts.

If each potluck felt like Thanksgiving, cooking for my husband and myself sometimes felt like a surprise party. I had never baked with honey before, and had dreaded messing up white sugar substitutions. But my carrot cupcakes didn't turn out burned and gooey, as I'd feared; they were light and delicately sweet.

A black bean ice cream experiment went interestingly awry when I burned a honey-bean mixture on the stove. Loath to waste all of those local ingredients, I poured boiling water over the whole thing, and sipped it. Voila! A surprisingly tasty coffee substitute, albeit one that would be a pain to reproduce.

I had been trying to make ice cream for years with little success. During localvore August, I finally learned that it turns out less like frozen butter if you use a mixture of milk, custard and cream, not 100-percent heavy cream.

My favorite find was honey caramel, from a recipe a friend provided midway through the month. With just a lump of butter, honey and salt, I could speedily create caramel corn, caramel apples and a sort of toffee. Who says eating local can't include junk food?

Of course, some surprises weren't so welcome. My German apple pancake turned out so salty it had to be thrown away; I'm still unsure why. Our fridge broke down a week into the challenge, and I had to scramble to find temporary homes for all of our local-meat-and-dairy foodstuff finds. One batch of sourdough just wouldn't rise, and I had to toss half of it before it ever became bread. The sauerkraut likewise met a salty fate when I discovered it had rotted instead of fermenting, and a batch of beans I was soaking for baking turned funny-tasting after I left them long enough to sprout green buds.

By the end of the month, I had run out of steam. I knew what I could eat, and where I could buy the necessary ingredients, so I stopped inventing recipes on my own and stuck with what I knew worked. Scrambled-egg sandwiches, beans, cheese and fresh produce became the order of the day; I didn't really mind eating repetitive repasts.

I was just glad to still be in step with the challenge: My friends gradually admitted to straying from the guidelines, either by good-naturedly eating dishes offered at other people's homes, or by leaving town on vacation and being unable to keep up with local eating where they were.

I remained fairly strict with myself, knowing that waffling once would make me more likely to fall off the wagon. Blogging about the challenge kept me on the straight and narrow. Most of the time. I did "cheat" twice. I downed two pints of hard cider at a bar the night we had to put our cat to sleep, and shared a beer with my husband Gahlord the night before the challenge finished.

Twenty-four hours later, at midnight on September 1, Gahlord made a pot of coffee to celebrate the fact that we could now drink it with clear consciences. It smelled so good that I had a cup. During the fitful sleep that followed, I considered what I had learned.

* I don't need caffeine as much as I thought, though I missed it more than I'd expected.

* Hunger may be the best seasoning, but I can see why medieval households kept priceless spices under lock and key: cinnamon, curry and pepper can transform so-so ingredients into taste sensations.

* Refined white sugar affects my mood: I feel healthier eating honey or maple syrup, or not eating anything sugary at all.

* Convenience foods are antithetical to the localvore ethos if their ingredients are of unknown origin. So instead of my normal routine of buying lunch, I packed one for myself every morning. That became a favorite ritual that I plan to continue.

* I don't want to go completely frontier-style and give up fresh veggies this winter, but I do plan to buy more local potatoes, squash and cabbage. I aspire to eat as seasonally as I can, and to get to know the farmers and other producers who make the food that sustains me.

And I hope to keep on swapping recipes and enjoying shared meals with friends. Cooking in camaraderie is nourishing in every sense of the word.