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Low-mileage vegetables. August 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It was 5:45 a.m., and not being the brightest bulb on the string at that hour—in fact, barely being able to compete with our 15-watt nightlight bulb—our friend Ben stared at the teaser at the top of the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with bemusement. (And yes, of course I’d love to sleep later, but our black German shepherd Shiloh has definite views about that.) “The Appeal of A [sic] Low-Mileage Vegetable,” it read, and showed a carrot with a superimposed odometer. The story itself was in the “Marketplace” section.

Hmmm, was the story about trying to market unpopular vegetables? If so, why didn’t it show a turnip or rutabaga? Those poor carrots get no respect. But hey, a WSJ story about vegetables! And it’s made the front page! Lurching into the bathroom to clean the litterbox, it belatedly dawned on our friend Ben that the story must be about locavores, folks who make an effort to support local agriculture by buying locally-produced produce, meat, eggs, milk and cheese, wine, beer and the like. “Low-Mileage.” Oh.

However, the locavore movement isn’t new, and therefore isn’t news. Or at least, front-page news in The Wall Street Journal. Unless it’s finally affecting commerce in a serious way. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I considerately shook a peacefully sleeping Silence Dogood’s shoulder to alert her to this potentially important development.

“Hey, Silence!”




[Continuing to shake shoulder, encouraging Shiloh to bounce on bed and lick Silence’s outstretched arm.] “Wait ’til you hear about this!”

“Shiloh, stop! Ben, this had better be good.”

“It’s a story in The Wall Street Journal about eating locally. Isn’t that great? More national attention for the local-foods movement. It’s about… uh…” My voice died away as I turned to the actual article and began to read.


“It’s, uh… it’s about Wal*Mart.”

“WHAT?!!! You woke me up at 6 in the morning to talk about Wal*Mart?!!! GRRRRRRRR…”

Hastily fleeing the bedroom, our friend Ben retreated to our home office and finished reading the article, “‘Local’ Grows on Wal-Mart” (check it out at www.wsj.com). As one might expect, the story focused on the growing national appeal of local produce and the giant grocery retailers’ (not just Wal*Mart’s) attempts to cash in on it, even if for them, “local” meant the entire West Coast or even the entire U.S.

This reminded me of how lucky we are here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We’re in farm country, surrounded by cows and fields and vineyards and even breweries. We can drive ten minutes in any direction and buy organic produce and free-range meats and eggs. We can buy homemade yogurt, cream, butter, milk, and an endless assortment of cheeses from local Jersey, Guernsey, and Swiss cows. We can buy award-winning wines from five local wineries and artisanal beer from ten local microbreweries. We can buy heirloom peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants from nearby Mennonite farms, and every conceivable fruit, veggie, and green in season, or buy them canned, jellied, frozen, dried, pickled, and otherwise preserved out of season, from dozens of farm stands and farmers’ markets. We can join a variety of local organic CSAs—subscription-grower programs—and receive the freshest assortment of veggies, fruits, herbs, and other delights every single week. And our local groceries proudly showcase the local farmers who provide them with their produce, giving their names, their farms’ names, and their locations.

True, not everything’s locally available. We grow our own hardy kiwis, hardy pecans, vanilla, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, ginger, citrus, figs, coffee, tea, bananas, and herbs. (Which, we hasten to add, is not the same thing as saying that we’ve managed to harvest and cure them all yet.) But there are plenty of things we love, including cashews, coconut, pistachios, almonds, dates, and, above all, salt, that we don’t grow. And we’ve yet to see local kiwis, bananas, pineapples, and etc. make it into our stores. Or discover a salt deposit in our backyard, more’s the pity.

But, setting cynicism aside, our friend Ben applauds the trend of the giant chains to at least support producers in the U.S. and Canada, even if Louisiana doesn’t strike you as “local” if you live in Maine. I do, however, think a “Produced in the U.S.” or “Produced in Canada” sticker is adequate, without the hype about being local if it isn’t justified. I’d love to see “Produced in PA” (or name your state) stickers as well. And I’d love to see “local” reserved for things that are actually produced locally, within the communities where they’re marketed.

The article yielded a few nuggets of information our friend Ben was not aware of: That Wal*Mart is “the largest grocer in the U.S., with more than $120 billion a year in food sales,” for example (Kroger is #2). And that, while giant retail chains are trying to tie their wagons to the local-food star, agricultural experts are saying no way, nohow. “They say that modern expectations for year-round supplies of blueberries and lemons will keep local food from becoming much more than a fad for most mass merchants,” according to the article. “I really don’t think Wal-Mart is going to tell customers, ‘This is not in season, you have to eat cabbage and turnips for the next three months’,” as one expert memorably put it.       

But our friend Ben was quick to see the flaw in this argument. Throughout human history, every culture has learned ways to preserve produce so they can benefit from its nutrients and flavor out of season and add diversity to their meals. Whether this meant drying beef or venison or buffalo or fish for jerky or pounding them into pemmican; turning apples into juice, cider, hard cider, apple sauce, cider vinegar, apple jelly, dried apple slices, apple butter, or apple brandy; or drying blueberries or making blueberry preserves or blueberry syrup or blueberry vinegar or canned or frozen blueberries, we have devised ways to preserve our local harvests year-round, whatever they may be. Our health and enjoyment depended on it.

Look at lemons, one of the foods mentioned in the article: In Morocco, they preserve (we’d say brine or pickle) whole lemons. In England, they make lemon curd and lemon marmalade.  In the U.S., it’s easy to find bottled lemon juice everywhere. True, nothing might equal a fresh-squeezed lemon. But all of us can still enjoy some form of lemon until they come in season once again.

So why are we so obsessed with the just-picked blueberry or corn on the cob, however distant its origins, or the hideously unripe but “fresh” strawberry, tomato or watermelon in December? Our friend Ben thinks it comes down to our obsession with immortality, our fear of death. Or of baldness or extra pounds or wrinkles.

Say what?! Every day, I receive e-mail bulletins about the health benefits of, say, fresh blueberries or walnuts or salmon. I read about them in the paper and in magazines and even grocery circulars. I’m sure they’re on the radio and TV all the time, too. Make sure you eat your fish for those vital omega-3s! Eat tomatoes for cancer-fighting lycopene! Spinach/broccoli/acorn squash/fresh garlic cloves combat disease! Eat two helpings of [fill-in-the-blank] every day/week to prevent [blank]! Blueberries/cranberries/kiwifruits/lychees/gogi berries/acai berries/God-knows-what will save us all from obesity, aging and death!

Mercy. There’s been a lot of hype lately about the so-called Paleolithic diet, and all of it has missed the point. Humans evolved to be, and survived because, we were omnivores. Early man ate whatever he could get his hands on, be it ants and grubs or fish, shellfish and birds’ eggs or fruit and honey or herbs and roots or nuts and berries and any kind of meat, from mice and lizards to bison and deer. Early man was always hungry, always on the lookout for anything he could eat. It was not the food per se but the huge diversity, the sparseness, and the enormous amount of exercise required to obtain so much as a mouthful that provided the health benefits of the Paleolithic diet. And even so, a 30-year-old was considered ancient.

Today’s “Paleolithic” diet essentially pits carnivores against vegetarians, with no tolerance for the median (omnivorous) path. The pro-Paleoliths claim that the health benefits of their diet are a short travel time through the gut, like a carnivorous diet, so food doesn’t have time to ferment during the digestion process. If Anthony Bourdain did a Paleolithic travel-food series, he’d call it “No Fermentation” (rather than his hit series’ title, “No Reservations”).

Once dairy, legumes and grains entered the human diet, fermentation became a major factor: in yogurt and cheese, in beer and bread and tofu and tempeh and sauerkraut and cider and vinegar and wine and kimchee and pickles and so many other foods. And not to put too fine a point on it, the cultures that embraced these foods lived long and prospered and rose to great cultural heights.

It was the rise of refined foods (white sugar, white flour, etc.), the adulteration of food with chemicals, the overconsumption of food, the drastic reduction in the variety of foods we ate, the toxic pollution of our environment beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and the increasing indolence (aka lack of constant exercise) that our automated lifestyles have encouraged that have brought us down, not the consumption of beans, grains and dairy. To say otherwise is naive, extreme, and dangerous, the hallmarks of pretty much all “diets.”

Yes, of course we can benefit from the good things about the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived: Eating much less than we do now, eating as wide a variety of fresh, organic and unprocessed or lightly processed foods as possible, staying on the move (on our own power) as much as possible, trying to live more in tune with the cycles of life, the days and the seasons: sleep when it’s dark, wake with the light, plan your meals around what’s in season while it’s in season.

Which brings our friend Ben back to low-mileage vegetables. Silence and I have our own priorities when it comes to vegetables and fruits. First, we try to grow as many of our own—organically, of course—as we can. Second, we try to find organic produce locally to supplement what we grow. Third, if we can’t find organic produce, we make a point of buying from area growers to support our community. And fourth, we try to eat at least 30 different vegetables a day.

Say what, you may be asking yourself after that fourth point. Thirty different vegetables?!! Impossible! But of course it’s not impossible or we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s easy. Let’s start with salad. Say you mix three different lettuces into your salad and add some arugula, frisee, escarole, radicchio, and spinach. That’s eight. Now, you add chopped scallions (green onions), shredded carrots, bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, olives, celery, sliced cukes, sliced yellow summer squash, and broccoli and cauliflower florets. That’s 18. Toss in some drained and rinsed canned garbanzos (chickpeas), kidney beans, or black beans, and some roasted corn cut off the cob: 20. Wait, we forgot radishes or Japanese salad turnips and diced red onion and purple cabbage and some undressed bagged coleslaw! And so it goes.

Moving on to the main meal, you might typically make at least two vegetable dishes to go with your meal, perhaps green and yellow wax beans or broccoli and carrots, and perhaps boiled, mashed or baked potatoes as well. Or you could make a luscious mixed grill of roasted vegetables as we love to do, with sliced sweet and new red or Yukon Gold potatoes, wedges of sweet onion, asparagus, corn or crookneck squash, and mushrooms.

That could bring your total close to 30 vegetables for one meal, and we’re not even counting the sandwich at lunch with lettuce and tomato or a luscious Caprese salad with Romaine, tomatoes, fresh basil, and capers. Or your breakfast omelette with scallions or diced sweet onion and bell or hot peppers, or your huevos rancheros with refried beans, onion, scallions, bell peppers, jalapenos, and tomato.

And obviously, we’re ignoring the mainstays of our meals, the spaghetti and pasta sauces and curries and stir-fries and pizzas and refried beans and soups and chilies and all the other complex, delicious, incredibly veggie-rich dishes that Silence makes so well. These up the veggie-diversity ante amazingly. Let’s just take Silence’s spaghetti sauce for example, with garlic, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, mushrooms, and hot peppers: 7 veggies in a single dish. Or our yummy pizzas, topped with olives, artichokes, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and arugula, plus tomatoes and garlic in the sauce for an 8-veggie total. If Silence is making an Indian feast, the total can easily be 15 just in the one meal, or more.

Our friend Ben urges you to see how much diversity you can add to your own meals. It will improve your health and longevity. And, if you can add “low-mileage” vegetables and fruits, you’ll help out your community as well. Go for it!!!



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