KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Stirring the Cauldron: Locavores
Bay Area Bites: culinary rants & raves from bay area foodies and professionals
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Monday, August 08, 2005
The moon is new! We have moved into the lunar phase known as the Wort Moon in 16th Century England. Wort is the old fashioned, Old English word for herb. Late summer was the time of year when medicinal and culinary herbs would be harvested, dried, and stored for the winter. Tinctures would be made, herbal ales would be brewed, and medicinal lozenges, jellies, candies and spirits would be processed. It was a time to refill the medicine chest for the year.

The Wort Moon coincides nicely this year with the month of August, when I am involved in a campaign to encourage people to eat as locally as possible. More than two-hundred people have signed on to take a significant step towards eating within their foodshed. Here in the Bay Area, we've drawn a 100-mile radius around the city of San Francisco, and we're making an effort to eat food grown from within that circle.

Eating locally is nothing new to me. Ever since I returned from cooking school eight years ago, got a job as a chef, began learning about sustainable agriculture, and found myself shopping at the wonderful Bay Area farmers markets, I have been eating more and more foods grown near to where I live. For a few years I have found myself not wanting to buy any produce at the grocery store--even the organic produce at my neighborhood natural grocery store. Part of it is that I am spoiled by buying vegetables and fruits that I know were picked that morning on the farm, and are still filled with all the life-force of the Earth. Another part of it is that I feel a moral obligation to put as much of my money as possible directly into the hands of the farmers who grow the food. Local organic farmers who see themselves as stewards of the land are really local heros--people out there keeping alive an approach to growing food that has been all but obliterated by corporate agribusiness.

The numbers are all against them. Land prices are too high. Labor costs are too high. Food prices are too low. The topsoil has been too depleted of nutrients and needs too much time and energy put into it to rebuild its fertility. The culture is too in love with technological gadgets, big cars, and the idea of wealth without work to really value farming or give farmers the respect and honor they deserve. It is only because people like me go out of our way to shop at the farmers markets, cook at home, and spend our money on food rather than car payments or cable tv that local farmers are surviving at all. But people like me are often characterized in the mainstream society as foodies, snobs, and liberal elitists who can make a fetish of eating organic, seasonal, local food grown by small farmers because we can afford to.

Some people who shop at farmers markets are wealthy--but so are some people who shop at Costco. Many of us aren't wealthy, we're just willing to spend a larger chunk of our income on food and a smaller chunk on other things because we feel food is important enough to do that. Some of us don't spend any more on food at farmers markets than we would do at supermarkets--we economize and bargain hunt and cook at home and are generally frugal, but just make sure that the money we do spend on food goes straight to farmers instead of to large multinational businesses. Some people feel that investing in nutritious food saves them money in other areas. One father I know reduced his family of four's health coverage to catastrophic only, and is investing all the money he's saving in feeding his family a more nutrient-dense diet. In the long run that is probably a prudent financial choice.

There is another factor in this equation: cheap oil. Our entire food system has been built on the premise of a consistent and inexpensive supply of petroleum. Gasoline or diesel fuels power the equipment that we use to plant, water, spray, and harvest our crops. Fertilizers and pesticides are synthesized from petroleum products. We rely on petroleum and its derivatives to transport crops, process them, and package them as products. Plastic, used throughout the entire system, is derived from petroleum. The average plate of food travels 1500 miles to get to our table--every mile is fueled by petroleum. Even cooking at home--whether using natural gas or electricity--depends on petroleum somewhere along the way. In other words, in just the past sixty years--a blink of the eye in human history--we have built a new global food system that is entirely dependent on petroleum. As we begin to run out of oil, the crucial problem facing humanity is not how we will get to work each day, but rather how we will feed ourselves.

Right now it might be more expensive to buy food from local, organic, small farms and humane grass-based ranches than to shop at the supermarket. But as the petroleum costs go up, the cost of factory farming will go up, the cost of shipping will go up, and imported and store-bought foods could once again become the expensive luxuries they once were.

Right now eating foods that were processed on an artisanal or small scale might seem costly. Processing them ourselves at home might seem time-consuming. But these foods may someday soon be far more economical and practical than their petroleum-intensive, factory-produced alternatives. They are already more sustainable. If the ecological crisis becomes really dire, knowing farmers in your area, maintaining a garden, knowing how to kill, pluck and dress a chicken, knowing how to cook, being able to store foods without refrigeration and to make medicinal teas and ales from local plants will once again be critical survival skills.

In the back of my mind, I've been thinking about the exercise of eating local foods for the month of August as a bit of a rehearsal for such an eventuality. What would my diet look like if imported foods were just too expensive? The fact is, it wouldn't look too different from my diet of the past few years, but there are some exceptions. Both coconut products and bananas are a part of my daily diet, and they'd be off the list. But the thing that I'm missing the most is my daily pot of green tea. Last year I managed wean myself off of coffee and onto green tea, which still gives me a lift without all the jitteriness and hyperactivity of coffee. I have found that it is lovely to start the day with a small pot of steaming Genmaicha--a Japanese tea with toasted rice in it--and have become almost as attached to it as I was to my morning cappuccino. While the tea plant--Camellia Sinensis--can be grown locally here in the Bay Area, no one is doing it on a commercial scale. The tea we get here is all imported from Asia. And since I didn't get my act together to buy a plant, put it in the ground, and figure out how to harvest it, I am having to do without for a month.

So I am developing a new morning ritual. Because it is the Wort Moon, my herb garden (wortyard) is in full bloom. The Echinacea is covered with big purple flowers, the Mullein is about eight feet tall and has three spikes dotted with yellow blooms, and the Yarrow is a cacophony of white inflorescences. First thing in the morning, instead of opening a tin of loose tea, I go out to the garden with my scissors and trim a small handful of yarrow flowers, a leaf of stevia, and few leaves of lemon verbena, and put them in my pot. I pour boiling water over them and once it has steeped I taste the slightly green, slightly bitter, gentle lemony sweetness of my homegrown brew.

I find it an interesting fact that in my effort to eat locally for the month of August, I am eating less of the foods that I consider 'bad' for me, and more of those that are healthiest. Caffeine, refined sugar, and many of the carbohydrates I normally consume are off of my plate and out of my cup. The most convenient local foods are eggs, meats, vegetables, fruit, and dairy products. Instead of porridge or toast for breakfast, I am eating hard-cooked eggs. And for a sweet, nighttime treat the other night, I drank a glass of warm frothed milk sweetened with honey and flavored with a few spritzes of rose hydrosol distilled by one of my favorite local farmers--something I may never have tried making if I wasn't keeping vanilla extract and maple syrup off limits for a few weeks.

The plants of the wortyard are really the flavors of home. Before northern dwellers had a steady supply of cinnamon, chocolate, nutmeg, cloves, lemons, vanilla, and cumin, their foods were scented and spiced with what they grew in their gardens. Sorrel, lovage, nettles, savory, and borage all enhanced the dinner table; dandelion blooms, elderflowers, and rose geranium leaves helped to give sweetmeats a delicate fragrance; and Labrador tea, dandelion root, and chicory would be brewed as hot beverages. These old-fashioned plants can hardly compete in today's world with the bold flavored imports from the tropics. But I for one am thoroughly enjoying my wort moon tisane of healing yarrow, as well as those few moments spent in the garden in the morning.

Just a few feet away from the yarrow we are in the process of putting in a raised-bed vegetable garden. Next year on the Wort Moon I may find that I am able to eat much of my produce from within a 100-foot radius of my house, and look to the 100-mile radius for meat, dairy, and eggs. Each step brings me closer into contact with the Earth, makes me feel more connected to my ancestors, and gives me rays of hope for a future that is grounded in what makes sense and what feels right on a deep level. I can't help feeling that our current society is like a house of cards, and one of the cards near the bottom is petroleum. If we pull out that card--what will happen to the rest of the structure? Isn't it time to begin thinking deeply about how we will live and thrive into the future, and begin building the foundation for a house that can weather the coming storms? I believe it is.

On the Wort Moon, I wish you the blessings of knowing where your food comes from and some of the people who spend their days growing it for you. I wish you delicious meals seasoned with basil, oregano, sage, thyme, lavender and the other fragrant herbs of the wortyard. I pray that we may all be touched by the wisdom of plants, who know the great value of having a little spot of Earth that they can call home.
 
 

1 Comments:

Anonymous Karletta said...

What a lovely article. Thanks so for explaining to the rest of the world why we 'foodie snobs' are willing to spend a bigger portion of our incomes on good food. I will be trying the frothed warm milk with honey and rose. Sounds very calming.

8/09/2005 2:58 PM

 

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