The 100 mile diet and its local diet cousins have had a powerful impact on our thinking about food. The word "local" now has true currency in the food world, and thousands of farms have new customers. The 100 mile diet was a terrific beginning. Now we need to start taking the next step towards local *cuisines* not just diets. I've written a bit about how to modify our current local diets here, about the "bullseye diet" that helps refine one's foodshed still further, but today I want to talk about what living local would really mean.
A recent study shows that food miles are simply more complicated than we thought. For example, a recent study done at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that food miles don't tell the whole story when comparing food's impact. Lamb imported from NZ to Britain often emitted less total carbon because supplemental feeding wasn't necessary in NZ, as it was in Britain. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/06/03/nrgreen03.xml&page=1
Now this seems like bad news for the local food movement, but it isn't really. Instead, it should be a wakeup call to us that duplicating the classic, homogenized western diet isn't really the goal of local eating. Right now, we're still thinking in terms of growing tomatoes everywhere, and that's fine to an extent. But every food region in the world has foods that are particularly adapted to or indigenous to their region, and these are the foods on which local cuisines are based. Think about it - remnents of local diets still exist as local specialities. When you go to Emilia-Romagna you eat different foods than when you go to Tuscany. When you go to Boston, you eat fish, not bananas. You can get a loaf of bread on Bali, but the real food is based on rice. We cannot build a local food movement based entirely on the notion that you grow salad greens everywhere.
Well the reason these remarkable, flavorful, amazing local diets and specialties evolved as they did is simple - not all foods are available everywhere. So most societies developed a local cuisine based on what grew best and most sustainably where they were. And if we are to eat locally again in a real and practical sense, that will mean eating a truly localized, specialized diet. Now that sounds scary to us - we've gotten accustomed to eating what we want, when we want. This sounds as though it would be a vast reduction in diversity. But, the reality is that our current diets aren't very diverse. 90% of the western diet is made up of just 14 species of plant and animal that we eat over and over again. And corn is at the root of almost 70% of our food - as animal feed, processed into corn syrup and integrated into our meals at every step.
In fact, most of us eat fairly narrow diets now, despite our perception of diversity. A truly local diet wouldn't give us less diversity in any meaningful sense. Nor would it make us less happy - most people *love* their staple cuisines. The average Italian woman isn't aching to give up her pasta, the Mexican woman her tortillas, the Frenchman his bread or the Vietnamese man his rice. In fact, it doesn't feel like a meal without them. Despite the values of fusion cuisines, to a large degree, all of the great foods of history come out of specific places, with specific soils and specific foods. Just as the discipline of the sonnet or the dance position enable us to be free in other ways, the limitations of local are the beginning of food as art, as culture, as uniquely ours.
Right now, for the most part, our 100 mile diets look a lot like everyone else's 100 mile diets. Farmers are mostly growing the same crops, during the same seasons that everyone else does. And this was fine as a beginning, but we can't base either a true local cuisine or a low energy, low carbon society on diets that aren't local to their soils, their climate, their agriculture. The first step is getting to know your region. The reality is that while there's no need to eliminate things that require some extra effort, the basis of our diet is and will be things that grow well where we are.
For example, I live in the cold, hilly, rocky, rainy, snowy northeast (at least until climate change turns it into something else). My land gets more than 50 inches of rain per year, and has fewer than 10 days over 90 degrees most years. Even in the hottest weather, most nights are in the 60s, and we often fall into the 40s even in high summer. Hills are steep, and often can't grow vegetables or grains without significant terracing. The growing season runs from April to October, although in my specific location, it is often too wet to plant before late April. The soils have heavy leaching of nutrients, are fairly acidic and generally need lots of organic matter, especially on the clay. There are better soils in the valleys and river plateaus nearby that are suited to other plants, including naturally high-lime soils good for growing things like alfalfa.
So what would my local diet look like? It would probably be low in heat loving plants that go dormant when night temperatures fall below 50, like hot peppers, okra and eggplant. It isn't that I can't grow them - I can and I do - but they wouldn't be staples of my diet, except to the extent that they can be easily preserved. Plants that need hotbeds or starting indoors would be less likely to be major crops than those that could be direct seeded, particularly in a lower energy society when artificial lights and heat were less available. So while I would grow tomatoes, I would probably prioritize short season varieties, and things like currant tomatoes which reliably self-sow.
I probably would grow plants that tolerate some acidity, like corn and potatoes, more than those that need a very neutral soil, although wood ash is added to the soil. Small grains simply don't do as well here, although my neighbors in the Schoharie Valley, which was the breadbasket of the American Revolution, could grow wheat. Amaranth grows marvelously here, and would be a good supplement, and oats tolerate wet conditions and leached soil better than wheat does, so I might grow them as a supplemental crop. Buckwheat does well in our summers.
Because I have a lot of land too hilly to till, it would make the most sense to graze animals on it, and eat the animals or drink their milk. Because the land tends to be wet, I'd like a breed that tolerates wet conditions well, and because it gets very cold, one that is thrifty on pasture and winters well with little grain. Romney, Icelandic, Soay or other sheep might well fit the bill, as would Scottish Highland or Dexter cattle. Milk would be a good summer crop - cows that can produce enough milk on grass alone make sense here because ample rain means that our pasture rarely goes dormant. If I didn't keep kosher, I might raise pigs in my woods, to eat the acorns.
Soybeans do acceptably here, but New England bred bean varieties like Jacob's Cattle and Maine Yellow Eye do better still. Favas do well as well, and I think garbanzos might be expandable. Peas do very well indeed. But beans like limas, black beans and pintos are simply high effort crops to grow on a field scale.
For oils, butter would probably make the most sense, although we're experimenting with oilseed pumpkins and sunflowers do quite well here. We can certainly grow mustard in the summers, and mustardseed oil is quite delicious.
We can grow leafy greens easily all summer - we don't have problems with bolting here. The same is true for cole crops and almost all roots. And we need roots because they store so well over the winter. Onions are particularly well suited to the sulfuric soils we have - they grow well, store well, and add a lot of flavor to our food, as does the garlic.
Herbs that do well here include coriander/cilantro, dill, basil, mints, fennel, cumin, chives, sage and many others. These might be primary flavoring agents. I could look back to traditional local flavorings like wintergreen berries and rosewater. Sour, lemony sumac could replace lemons for both vitamin c and flavor, as could apple cider vinegars. Wild thyme and other herbs could be integrated more fully into pastures to give local milks, butters and cheeses indigenous flavors.
Apples, hazelnuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, quinces, plums, pears, raspberries, strawberries, and many indigenous fruits of cold climates like lingonberries and sea buckthorn would probably become the primary fruits, along with many others. Wild mushrooms, wild greens and other wild foods would be daily additions.
There are minor crops that would almost certainly add to the variety of our diets. Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts, grown together might provide a staple starch-protein combination. A full exploration of what can and should grow here might help us evolve a more complex and exciting diet.
What would it look like? What would I eat? What would tourists who visited come home raving about? Perhaps they'd come in summer, when my diet was a lot like everyone's. A smaller portion of my garden might be in tomatoes and peppers and more in beets and greens, but generally speaking, they would enjoy my local summer foods. We might have an omlet filled with asparagus, local goat cheese and sauteed in butter. Come fall, they obvious things - pumpkins, squash and roots would dominate the diet, and there would be considerably more meat, because it would simply make sense to butcher animals at fall festivals, rather than feed them over the winter. Milk would disappear, and be replaced by cheese.
In the fall we might drink cider, eat a stew of root vegetables and dried beans in broth, and a side of broccoli with cheese sauce.
In the winter, there would be few eggs (not enough light), and no milk, but an ample supply of potatoes, buckwheat for pancakes, cheese, some meat, and all the pleasures of cold weather and hearty stews and soups. It would not be difficult to keep some greens going over the winter as well. Winter would be a time for parties and celebrations. Cider would be hard and the beer would be ready.
Spring would come with its foods as well - the burst of eggs and wild greens, fresh new milk and and the remnents of winter. Now is the time for mashed potato cakes with dandilion greens, for rhubarb-apple sauce with the last stored apples and the first rhubarb, and the first spears of asparagus.
What's missing? Olive oil, meat in spring and summer, large quantities of bread and wheat. Some flavors have been replaced - my hummus might be made with fava beans, there's rosewater instead of vanilla in my pudding, a heavier use of indigenous herbs, the slight change of taste from different oils and different ingredients. Textures and smells, undertones and topnotes - all are specific, local. Over time, they will become transcendent.
The study mentioned above compared the same varieties of sheep, using the same practices of management in different places. Perhaps the British need to eat less lamb, or perhaps they need to raise it differently. Perhaps different breeds, like the landraces that evolved over centuries are more appropriate. But a truly local diet must eventually emerge from a low energy society, and there's no reason for us to fear it - we should, in fact, embrace the beginnings of our local cuisines.