Keeping it close to home
Every year, during the four warm months of summer, most of us become locavores. When gardens burst with ripe produce and farmers’ markets bustle with local energy, dining on regional foods alone is downright enjoyable.
But can you go locavore year-round — especially here in the northern latitudes? Eventually, of course, the farmers’ markets close and the backyard gardens shrivel. As the days grow shorter, so too does the list of local-food options. Suddenly, foods bearing stickers from hot, distant locales start to look pretty tempting.
But with a little know-how, effort, and planning, you can still enjoy a bounty of foods from just around the corner, no matter which season you’re in. Here are some ideas to help you get through the year with your food ideals (mostly) intact.
Know what’s in season. When the first frost comes, you needn’t just assume it’s the end of all things produce. Through the use of greenhouses and other methods, farmers have extended the seasonal range of many crops.
Even in some northern regions, food grows throughout the winter.
So before you reach for that apple from halfway around the world, check out the National Resources Defense Council’s interactive eating local tool to see what’s still in season in your state — no matter what the calendar says.
- Find a year-round CSA. Figuring out which foods are in season locally is difficult. So why not let somebody else do it for you? Joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) is essentially like buying a subscription to a farm: you get a share of the food that’s growing in your area. Unfortunately, most CSAs run only through the summer months. But a few have recognized the year-round demand for local produce and are finding some inventive ways to continue to provide produce boxes to clients throughout the year.
One way to find a year-round CSA is to consult Local Harvest, but you can also try the Eat Well Guide or the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Residents of the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area can consult PACSAC (the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition). Or ask the director of your local farmers’ market; he or she may have ideas about farmers who do CSAs as well as markets. The Chowhound discussion boards are great resources, and even the Craigslist food forum may help.
- Know your fish. Throughout the year, certain kinds of salmon and steelhead make the long trip home through the open ocean, into bays, and up rivers, making for the perfect opportunity to sample fresh-caught fish. You can find out which fish are moving through your area the same way anglers often do, by consulting your state’s fish and wildlife agency.
Meanwhile, if you want to take the next step, maybe it’s time to give fishing, clamming, oyster harvesting, or crabbing a try — just be sure to buy a license. Ocean fish and shellfish are often best in the colder months, and shellfish-harvesting permits (for coastal clam-digging and the like) are typically inexpensive, offering a hands-on opportunity to keep your diet local if you live near the coast.
- Experiment with local grains. Grains have long been the bane of the American locavore diet, since so much of the nation’s grain production takes place in the high-yield, low-population Midwest. And let’s face it: a life without bread and cookies hardly seems worth living.
Luckily, growers and distributors are recognizing the need for local grains. Cases in point: Bob’s Red Mill in Portland, Oregon; Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain in Shutesbury, Massachusetts; Community Grains in Oakland, California; Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina; Montana Flour & Grains in Fort Benton, Montana; and Cayuga Pure Organics in Brooktondale, New York.
Shakefork Community Farm in Carlotta, California, is just one farm that offers a grain CSA. To find a local grain source in your neck of the woods, again refer to Local Harvest or ask around at your area food co-op, farmers’ market, or CSA source.
- Find artisans who source local produce. Thoughtful artisanal food crafters — think cheese makers and brewers — often make an effort to use local ingredients, and they continue offering locally sourced products year-round. So try asking around at farmers’ markets and local farms to see who’s buying local produce. Also, check out sources like FoodShed or Foodzie. FoodHub, which connects sustainable, locally minded food producers, distributors, and customers, might also be a good resource.
If you live in Vermont, you can try yourfarmstand.com, a site that allows you to order from local farmers and distributors online. You can also try to find vendors carrying selectively frozen free-range chickens, organic beef, or refrigerated dairy via the grass-fed directory Eatwild.
- Learn to forage. Foraging for food is as local as it gets — and as seasonal, too, since you eat what’s growing in the wild at a certain time in a certain place. But foraging is hard work and requires know-how to be done safely.
Many colleges, community colleges, and agricultural extension agencies now offer wild-food foraging classes. The wild-edibles expert Steve Brill offers a Wild Edibles Basics DVD, and Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest is a great paperback introduction.
Most regions won’t offer much in the way of wild edibles during winter. But in some areas, wild mushrooms like chanterelles are available into late fall, and you can easily freeze or dry wild mushrooms for later.
- Start storing and preserving in the summer. Barbara Kingsolver famously said it best in her groundbreaking book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August.” Going local is a year-round process, so when you have that bounty of produce, meat, and fish in the summer, think about holding some of it back. Start by squirreling away storage vegetables like squash, carrots, potatoes, onions, and garlic to eat long after the growing season ends.
Meanwhile, many foods will keep for months if prepared and stored properly via canning, freezing, or drying. These food-storage methods can be dangerous if they’re bungled, however, so be sure to follow expert directions from places like the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Lots of books on preserving have been published in recent years, too. For tips on freezing summer produce, check out the Cooks Illustrated downloadable guide.
- Look to the past. Local eating used to be a necessity: people ate what grew in their regions because they didn’t have a choice, and storing, freezing, canning, and drying were part of the annual cycle. Try drawing inspiration from past generations.
You can start by raiding the cookbooks, recipes, and minds of the older members of your family; plenty of grandmas (and grandpas) out there undoubtedly have a few tricks up their sleeves. Alternatively, take a look at the vintage-cookbook site Old Cookbooks.com, which is searchable by region.
For inspiration (and pleasure) you might also read the memoirs of noted food writers; they often contain gems of local food know-how the authors gleaned from their parents or grandparents. Look to the fantastic Pacific Northwest food memoir Delights and Prejudices, from James Beard; New Englander John Thorne’s treatise on his first kitchen, Outlaw Cook; or M.F.K. Fisher’s mid-century compilation The Art of Eating.
Joe Hansen is a commercial beekeeper and freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.