Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A Month Of Slow Food

I've never participated in National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) outside of November before, but I'm finding myself with a lot on my mind these days, particularly with regard to how and what we eat, and the NaBloPoMo theme for the month of July just happens to be "food." Perfect! My friends and family can tell you it's pretty much all I'm talking about to them lately, anyway. There are a great number of topics that I am learning about and looking forward to learning about, and some I'm smack in the middle of experimenting with. If you have some suggestions (for my personal growth, not my blogging--I'm afraid the latter is a lost cause) that you don't see here, please leave a comment about it!

I'm doing my best to learn about where my family's food comes from and how it's raised, whether vegetable, grain, meat, or dairy. I've made some discoveries that shocked me, and might shock some of you, while others of you (especially gardeners) will wonder what took me so long to figure it out. I've had to fight a sense of, "Oh, you should have gotten started on this 20 years ago," which I've been able to do because of my daughter. Watching her learn along with me is truly amazing, and I'm floored by the openness and understanding she has of the natural process and our place, as humans, in the food chain and as stewards of the earth and its resources.

I can tell you right up front that there will be talk of meat, fish, poultry, and dairy, as well as vegetables and fruits and nuts and grains, because we're not vegetarians. I was once, for a while--I was a vegan, even--and I respect and honor that choice for anyone who makes it. If Bella were to decide she wanted to stop eating meat, I'd do my best to make sure she was properly nourished, however her little spirit guides her. Personally, the more I learn and the more I become responsible for what I consume, the more at peace I am with my place in the food chain. There's little doubt that primates evolved eating meat, or that our digestive systems, from start to finish, designate us as omnivores--that we're meant for a wide variety of foods, a little of everything. I also don't believe that we should kid ourselves that we can ever, omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, be held blameless for the deaths of the fellow species with which we cohabit this planet. The harsh fact is, if you are eating--anything--you are killing animals. Produce farming is responsible for untold animal deaths, regardless of organic status, due to everything from loss of habitat to farming machinery to chemical toxicity. That's not a debate I'm interested in having, because I've made my choice for myself and only myself, and I'm not interested in changing anyone else's mind or having someone try and persuade me to change mine. I'm just letting my friends know that when I'll be discussing "slow food" this month, a lot of that discussion will involve the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs. I treasure my ethical/religious vegetarian and vegan friends, and I don't want to alienate them. I also would never wish to make them uncomfortable or sad.

In particular, what we're trying to do here, our own little family, is to become more aware, more thoughtful, and more responsible for what we consume, both for our own health and for the health of the planet. I'm learning that those two concerns pretty much go hand in hand. I do believe that people should eat less meat (heck, less protein, period) than we do, on average. We should eat less sugar, drink more clean water, move around more, flow with the seasons instead of trying vainly to manipulate them.

We happen to be blessed with a little acreage--5 acres, to be exact. At this point in time, it isn't suitable for growing much traditional garden produce, being situated on a rocky hillside, but I hope to learn more about this little piece of land and what it's capable of, and perhaps plant and encourage what WILL grow here, rather than what I'd LIKE to grow here. There are a goodly number of wild plants and trees on this scraggly, seemingly barren hillside that are producing perfectly consumable food, if we will only study and learn what they are and how they're used. Foraging fascinates me, and it's something I very much want to know more about. I welcome any suggestions on the subject. What our property is suited for right now is the raising of certain food animals, some of which we're already raising and some of which I'm just kind of daydreaming about for the future: poultry, dairy goats, sheep. Pigs would do exceptionally well here, I think, but our family consumes very little pork, and it's not a healthy enough food to offer a compelling argument toward changing that. If pork were something we could barter, say, in exchange for a steady supply of fresh milk, well, that would be a consideration.

Ideally, we would eat an all-organic diet of foods that can be found near us, in season, as much as possible grown and raised ourselves, hunted and foraged, or purchased from like-minded independent farmers. It doesn't take long to see that that's just not going to be 100% possible all the time, and that we're going to have to make trade-offs in priorities from situation to situation. There are going to be situations in which "local" trumps "organic," and vice-versa. There is also, like it or not, cost to consider, and I think I've established myself as a frugal shopper.

For example, there are two huge, highly productive berry farms within a couple of miles of my home. Every spring, they're bursting with strawberries, which happen to be a fruit my family eats a lot of, mostly in daily blended smoothies (more about those later in the month). Unfortunately, both of those farms spray their crops with chemicals, and strawberries are among produce's "Dirty Dozen"--the crops which absorb more potentially harmful chemicals than any other. A pint-sized bag of frozen organic strawberries (you can't even buy them fresh in my local groceries) costs about three and a half dollars here. So what was happening with strawberries is that I was buying the organic ones for Bella, and Alex and I were blending up the cheaper and more readily available non-organic berries in our own smoothies. Seems kind of silly when you consider that the whole reason we make fruit and veggie smoothies is for...our health. But at least Bella was covered.

At the end--and I mean, the very, very end, as in the last day--of strawberry season, I was able to get all the strawberries I could afford from Hardin Farms, an organic local farm that is considerably farther from my home than the previously-mentioned berry farms. In this case, organic was more important than local. And the great thing is that I was able to purchase 32 quarts of beautiful, totally organic strawberries for about $1.54 per quart. I don't know about your area, but here, that's considerably less than you'd pay for a quart of trucked-in Mexican or Californian chemical-laden strawberries at, say, Wal*Mart. Those berries kept me hopping for most of the last weekend in May, getting them cleaned, capped, and frozen whole, one tray at a time, to be stored in freezer bags once frozen solid. It was a lot of work, and some trouble to find those berries, but I know I'll be so grateful when I'm able to toss a handful in the blender to make us all a vitamin-packed drink in the middle of January. I didn't even waste anything--the caps and the occasional mushy berry were all fed to the chickens. Riana would probably have used those hundreds of caps to distill an infusion that she'd then make into a year's supply of glossifying shampoo, or to brew a medicinal tea that cures flatulence (unless she figured out a way to power a gas stove or something with said flatulence), but I didn't have time to seek her knowledge on this particular weekend, so into the poultry garbage-disposals the scraps went.

There are some things that, at this point, I don't see us giving up, despite the fact that they're not in any way local: olive oil, orange juice, certain fruits that Bella loves, like bananas and pineapple...we may eventually come around to that point, though. This is, no pun intended, an organic process, and one that is continually evolving as we learn and shift our minds into a different gear. Must we have pineapple? Well, no. We only have it because we want it, and we can get it. There's nothing, nutritionally speaking, that we must have that can only come from that pineapple. My generation has grown up having access to, literally, the world, when it comes to food, and it really takes a heck of a wake-up call for most of us to realize the impact our choices have on that world.

Some choices seem a whole lot simpler than they really are. If you decide (and rightly so, in my opinion) that you will no longer support the cruelty and waste of industrial-farmed poultry, battery-produced eggs, feedlot beef and pork, and the industrial dairy industry, well, that's a pretty easy fix while doing your grocery shopping for home (actually, for dairy products, it really isn't, because even "organic" milk doesn't really come from happy cows, but we'll get into that later). It isn't so simple if you ever buy food from a restaurant, which most of us do, and it pretty much puts the kibosh on fast food altogether, not that that's a bad thing. Restaurants are a sticky wicket I'd like to discuss later this month, too. It's easy enough to say, "Well, I'll just always order vegetarian choices when dining out." That's fine and good, but it contributes to another problem--the transportation, often trans-continental, of out-of-season, heavily sprayed, genetically modified produce--while addressing the original one. We've gotten ourselves into a fine mess with modern food production and consumption.

In some cases, baby steps are enough for now, and this would especially be so if many people made those same steps. When I picked out orange juice last week, it took some time, as I scrutinized the labels of all the containers. Organic was out of the question--it wasn't even offered. Knowing that California and Florida are the nation's keystone orange producers, it seemed a straightforward choice. Florida isn't right next door, but it is, after all, a lot closer than California. Not so fast. Not only was there not a simple, ready supply of Florida orange juice at the chain store (I think the "Florida's Natural" brand was sold out that day) where I was shopping, but most brands were made with oranges from multiple sources, and most of those sources were places like Chile, Mexico, Brazil! That was one of those "shocking" things I mentioned earlier. I had no idea that oranges were shipped from all over the world to centrally-located processing centers which package the juice and then ship it out to parts near and far after that. Wow.

I've let this foreword stretch on for far too long already, but let me list some of the topics I'd like to get into this month, and ask you to please add to this list with anything you think of that fits in, and to PLEASE chime in when it's a topic with which you're familiar.

Vegetable gardening
Fruit trees, bushes, or vines
Wild foraging (flowers, herbs, nuts, grains, vegetables, fruits, etc.)
Farmer's Markets
Certified organic vs. non-certified but chemical-free
Locating sources of clean, wholesome food
Pasture-raised, grass-fed livestock (NO GRAIN-FED BEEF)
Hunting wild game for meat
Fresh eggs from pastured hens
Raising chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs
Organic and/or raw milk and cheese
Goat's milk vs. cow's milk; keeping dairy animals
Cheesemaking and cooking with whey (the byproduct of cheesemaking)
Culturing homemade yogurt, kefir (both dairy and water kefir), buttermilk
Culturing kombucha
Square-Foot Gardening (for those of us who have no topsoil)
Local honey products and beekeeping
Finding optimal sources for non-local products (olive and other oils, grains, etc.)
Food preservation of all kinds (freezing, canning, drying, etc.)
Responsible restaurant meals
Government involvement in farming
Corporate, industrial monopolies in farming
Lack of crop diversity and how to combat it as a consumer
The fact that Monsanto sucks

How ironically appropriate that I composed this post over a meal of takeout Chinese food. The only thing I can say in my defense is that it was the first such meal we've had in over a month, which is a considerable improvement in responsible eating for this family.


  1. I recently acquired some Nubian dairy goats and am now making cheese every day. It doesn't last long! Very delicious!

  2. Well I know zip about all that stuff so it'll be an educational month for me.

  3. read my book, belinda -- i was writing about all this in 1995. you can buy it used on Amazon for just a couple of bucks. it's long out of print now. "A garden of unearthly delights: bioengineering and the future of food," written before I was married so the author is Robin Mather.

    One thing missing on your comprehensive list of topics (unless i skimmed right past it) is rBGH, the dairy hormone injected into cows to make them give more milk. Especially for anyone with kids, that alone makes organic milk worth the cost.

    i kept dairy goats for almost a decade, and loved them. but making that commitment to milk -- twice a day, without fail, 10 months out of the year -- is a huge step. Does anyone in your county keep dairy goats? You can buy from them to start. If the milk tastes goaty, don't buy from them again -- goat milk should taste as "clean" as cow's milk, and if it doesn't, it's telling you a lot about how those animals were fed and cared for.

    any way, i'm glad you're taking the time to learn about these things. We're making big changes in our food supply chain right now -- locavoring isn't going to go away, it's not a fad. But it's Bella's generation that has to "get it" to carry it on.

    warm regards,

  4. I only know about lawn fertilization.

    From dog poop.

    After that, I'm fresh out of ideas so I'm counting on you.

  5. I'm so glad you'll be writing about these topics this month. I'm looking forward to learning with you. I've been trying to live more locally and responsibly (particularly where my food is concerned) for more than a year now, and like you said, it's a slow evolution. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

  6. I'm really looking forward to this. I've been trying, ever since we moved to Florida, to learn more about eating locally and in season.

    I want to be healthy AND responsible AND be able to afford my groceries.

  7. Oh, good for you guys! I grow very little of my own food - this is our fifth summer having a share in a local, certified-organic CSA, and it is just so easy to pay a family I really like go grow food I love to eat.

    I am looking forward to learning more about ALL of these topics with you!

  8. yay for this! i know a little about all of these topics but a lot about a few -- farmer's markets, for instance, and cooking with whey, and raw milk, and food preservation, and fresh eggs. i've been making yogurt, butter and kombucha, though my kombucha got forgotten, well, ignored, and so tastes more like vinegar. i use local raw honey and aspire to beekeeping and goatkeeping. i've been getting olive oil from a really great guy who imports directly from sicily. i forage wild for one thing: st. john's wort, which i use to make oil for baby's bottoms and sunburns and things.

    it'll be fun to follow along! and robin, i'm totally buying your book!

  9. Awesome post! and I'm looking forward to reading your continued meanderings on this topic.
    We started a little backyard vegetable garden about a year ago, and aside from the fact that it's all organic, drip-irrigated, and home-composted - it brings amazing personal fulfillment that I never expected (what? I grew that? and it lived to be eaten?)
    It doesn't happen at once, and we have a lot more to do, but its a start. Being aware is the first step :-)

  10. I was going to say GMO's, but Robin mentioned it.

    Also, veggie cultures? In the Kefir family, but veggies. Supposed to be crazy healthy.

  11. virginia--oh, I'd love some Nubians goats! Actually, I think I'd love to have a neighbor who had Nubian goats. ;-) I'm going to try some cheesemaking with fresh goat's milk as soon as I can get some.

    papernapkin--I know zip about a lot of it, so it should at least be entertaining!

    robin--I already found your book at Alibris, along with a Mexican cookbook and a homesteading guide which are all long out-of-print. Yay!
    I do have fresh/raw/organic milk on my list. This presents a whole new set of problems when it comes to buying local *and* making cheese. We have no local sources for organic milk, and all our organic milk that's shipped in is ultra-pasteurized, so it can't be used for cheese or yogurt or buttermilk or kefir. In any case, I am SO glad you're joining the discussion!

    avalon--I've been making kefir for years...to feed to DOGS. And not eating it myself. Hello!

    smtwngrl--jump in with your experiences any time, please! It has been really hard for me to locate certain things.

    miss britt--Yaay, glad to have you! You said it exactly. And gosh, in Florida, it seems like you'd have a lot more choices most of the time...but then, people would think that, living in the midst of farming communities here in Arkansas would mean we'd have easy access to fresh, organic produce. We don't.

    erin--I checked into the CSAs, and I've been looking at the baskets when I go to the farmer's market, but they only send the baskets out once a month, and they seem to concentrate more on unusual or rare items than they do on what I'd consider "utility" foods...I can see ordering the CSA stuff here IF all my grocery needs were already met, you know? I would HAPPILY pay good farmers for good food, and I'm trying to find them!

    sarah--I know I've told you before that the stuff you can do amazes me. I would love to have your input on anything! I haven't tried kombucha yet, so I'll be leaning on you for that one.

  12. rachel--our garden is TINY, mainly because of the expense in setting up the boxes, and it's taking a lot of experimenting this year to see what will and will not grow over the shallow topsoil in a box. I'm starting to lean more toward taking advantage of things that have proven themselves hardy here. It's a long learning curve, isn't it?

    To Think--I was thinking of GMOs when I talked about monoculture and corporate monopolies on agriculture, but thanks for reminding me. I would LOVE to know more about vegetable cultures. I've done milk kefir and cheese, and am getting ready to try water kefir and kombucha, so why not? ;-)

  13. Wow! You're way ahead of me on the organic and locavore purchasing. For me it's more of a wishlist. We do buy at the Farm Market every Saturday, and my garden is great in season, but that's it. Ah, yes, we buy fresh eggs from a coworker at my husband's workplace.
    I'm doing NaBloPoMo for July, too. It won't all be about food, but there will be plenty of garden posts.
    Sorry for the lengthy comment!

  14. We get our milk from Braums - y'all have those, don't you? Not organic, but it is antibiotic and rBGH free plus it costs less than grocery store milk.

    ALSO...I bought tomatoes yesterday that are from Arkansas! I was giddy! I thought of you all day!

    I'm really looking forward to reading your posts. I am trying to balance healthy, environmentally-friendly eating with my budget. I hate when the budget wins...

  15. We love farmers markets here - but sometimes you have to use (eat, freeze, cook) what you buy that day or it will go bad.

    I am also trying to grow tomatoes in a windowbox, so container gardening is an interest. (I heard that you can grow potatoes in a rubbermaid tub).

    It should be an enjoyable month to read. Can you include some kid friendly recipies also?

  16. daisy--I feel like I'm "wishing," too. If it were just a matter of shopping choices, I'd gladly pay more money for the things I want. But it's so hard to FIND them. And so you begin to figure out what you can do yourself out of necessity...which is, I guess, how it's always been, up until very VERY recent history, huh?

    buffi--it looks like Northwest Arkansas has Braum's locations. Maybe they'll get here eventually. It's not even legal to buy or sell raw cow's milk in Arkansas (you can buy raw goat's milk, with a laundry list of restrictions). You can buy cheese made from raw milk, IF it's been aged 60 days or more. Very frustrating. We're on a tight budget, too, so I won't be writing about any splurges. I'm using pretty much the same shopping principles I did with my coupon-heavy grocery shopping...I am spending more, but what I'm buying is more nutrient-dense, so it's working out almost the same.

    Leslie--it's a deal! I just taught Bella how to make pancakes today, and have been involving her in cooking more and more...which makes her more invested in food and more likely to eat it! And yeah, the summer produce I've been buying has been highly perishable, but that's an indication that it's a "real" crop, not genetically engineered with cross-country shipping and long-term storage in mind. I've been doing a lot of blanching and freezing. AND I am going to get seed potatoes and try growing them in a barrel next year!

  17. This is going to be an interesting month here! Looking forward to reading about the topics I know nothing about and chiming in about the things I do know.

  18. I'm facing all this stuff too, so it'll be interesting. I have the additional difficulty of the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing, grows here for at least six months of the year.

  19. I think I posted my original comment to the wrong post. I just wanted to say I won't be bored one bit. I'm really looking forward to it. I'm hoping it will inspire me to make changes for me and my family.

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