POSTED: 21 November 2006 - 12:00pm HST

Locavores dine on regional chow

graphics from University of Northern Iowa Local Food Project (515) 232-5661

By Paul Adams on 21 November 2006 in Wired Magazine

The first thing I did when my friends invited me to their seasonal potluck was pull out a map and a sharp compass.

My friends, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, are exemplary hosts, and the potlucks they've thrown once a season are pretty casual affairs with just one constraint: Every ingredient of every dish must have been grown and processed within a 100-mile radius of their house in Brooklyn, New York.

That means not just no flour or oil, but no beer (plenty's brewed locally, but the barley and hops come from outside the radius), no cinnamon and no coffee.

I wanted to bring my favorite apple-buttermilk cobbler, but sugar was well outside the boundaries. Maple syrup might make a good substitute, but I couldn't find any in a week's hunting. Finally I abandoned the dessert idea and decided to go with a nice, hearty beef stew.

Hundreds of "locavores" scattered around the country are celebrating Thanksgiving this year with their own 100-mile meals.

Local, sustainable eating is a noble cause. As advocates like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have labored to make clear, it's good for both eater and eaten, not to mention the economy and the planet. The 100-mile diet is perhaps the quickest and cleverest way to build awareness of food miles, and the pleasures and challenges of local "foodsheds." In just one traditional Thanksgiving dessert, easily assembled at any supermarket, pecans from Georgia fill a pie shell made with Oregon wheat and Wisconsin butter, with corn syrup from Iowa, sugar from Florida, bourbon from Kentucky. If you're eating it in New York, that adds up to some 6,000 miles for one pie -- 14,000 if you splash in some Madagascar vanilla.

The idea was popularized by Gary Paul Nabhan in his 2001 book, Coming Home to Eat, a description of his yearlong project to eat nothing from outside a 250-mile radius of his Arizona home. In his book, Nabhan waxes perfervid about the joys of wolfberry salad and rattlesnake fritters.

Other locavores, like Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, have tightened the radius and softened the rhetoric: As documented on 100-Mile Diet and in their forthcoming book, the couple ate within 100 miles of their Vancouver, British Columbia, home for a year starting in March 2005, and remain active advocates of local eating. A San Francisco Bay Area group put together an "Eat Local Challenge" in August 2005, and the blog they started has become a community and clearinghouse for local-minded eaters around North America.

Personally, I find local products more eye-openingly delicious than their factory-farmed counterparts, but 100-mile cooking appeals most to the puzzle-solver in me. Improvising a meal under such tight strictures reminds me of the constrained literary projects of Oulipo, under whose auspices, for instance, Georges Perec wrote his novel La Disparition without the letter "e." My host Matt, by no coincidence, has a similar bent: His 2005 book, Exercises in Style, tells the same comic-strip story in 99 different styles.

In the same way, 100-mile cooks are forced to come up with creative solutions to the hurdles they encounter. With nutmeg and allspice forbidden, ethnobotanist Leda Meredith spices her pumpkin puree with spicebush berries and peppergrass seeds; MacKinnon replaces coconut with taste-alike green hazelnuts, and sprinkles dried kelp in place of salt.

I usually flavor my beef stew with a magical triad of wine, beer and coffee, but beer and coffee were off-limits, so I had to substitute a thinner New York state wine for the hearty Californians I prefer. I would ordinarily dredge the beef in flour before browning it, and add prunes at the beginning and mustard at the end, but all of that went by the board. Nonetheless, with local pasture-fed beef, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, turnips and pearl onions, the stew turned out to be a hit.

Matt mixed cocktails with pear brandy, Jessica cooked a soufflé and a buttery potato galette and Bryan capped off the dinner with a pear-chestnut ravioli dessert.
With the ground frozen, winter's meal is going to be tougher, but I embrace the noble challenge. I'm already planning a February fishing trip.

see also:
Island Breath: 50 million US farmers
Island Breath: Agricultural Farming Error
Island Breath: Sustainable Growth Impossible
Island Breath: Hawaii Sustainability 2050
Island Breath: Sustainable Self-Sufficiency
Island Breath: Sustainabilty & Growth
Island Breath: Kauai Population Capacity
Island Breath: Backyard Taro Garden