Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
Yes, I’m still eating local. Locavore, back-to-the-lander, food activist, active foodist: the whole nine yards. I’m it. Except for the coffee and the chocolate. And the ginger, bananas, and nori. I joke that these yearly “Eat Local Challenges” are the equivalent of food-activist Lent. Stick the ash on my forehead and point me toward the farmers’ market.
Kidding aside, I believe the Eat Local Challenge is a terrific educational tool, one that not only alerts consumers to how little local food they eat, but also gives them a sense of how little local food is available. As shoppers ask questions about product origins, merchants respond with local food marketing campaigns and, in some cases, increase their volume of locally produced goods.
The Menomonie Market Food Co-op makes reporting its local food numbers part of its job — increased numbers of local vendors equals more money staying in western Wisconsin and southern Minnesota. Helping to keep several dozen producers afloat is no small thing in an enduring economic crisis.
This year, in addition to watching my purchases, I tried to produce and gather more of what I ate. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t have due to geographic limitations and unwillingness to spend these fleeting summer hours in the kitchen, I sought delicacies that turn eating local into an excuse for a field trip. Here, in alphabetical order, are the foods that I found:
Blueberries: On a Saturday afternoon, my husband and I grabbed our modified plastic milk jugs and headed to Blueberry Ridge Orchard near Eleva, Wisconsin. In a broad, tidy valley ringed with oak trees, I picked blueberries as strangers in adjacent rows tried to remember the name of the girl in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” who blows up into a giant blueberry. (Answer: Violet Beauregard, and it was a special chewing gum that got her, not actual blueberries.) I love picking blueberries because they don’t have thorns. They’re also beautiful. We gorged ourselves on one gallon of the four we picked that day, and washed and froze the rest.
Chanterelles: Since I sleep later than my husband when we camp, he has grown accustomed to roaming the woods or lakeshore before I rise. One morning, I struggled from my sleeping bag to find his hat full of small, brown mushrooms. My mother’s panic about poisoning had always prevented me from discovering my inner mushroom hunter, but these mushrooms smelled awfully good. That night, we ate them fried in butter (after he had carefully keyed them out and assured me there were no life-threatening lookalikes). Inspired by his hatful, I insisted on a follow-up field trip during which we found a few “sweet tooth” or “hedgehog” mushrooms (with fascinating pencil-shaped protrusions where other mushrooms have pleat-like gills), classic orange chanterelles (which gave off an apricot fog as their cell structure ruptured in the heat of the frying pan), and more brown chanterelles (not quite as sweet as the orange variety). As with the blueberries, we ate some immediately (in a modified empanada) and cooked and froze the rest.
Green beans: Last fall, I read an article that noted a record turnout of gleaners in Colorado. A farmer placed a classified ad inviting people to come through his fields after harvest and take home whatever they found. Gleaning is an ancient practice; its modern analog is dumpster diving or freeganism.
On a walk to the blackberry patch that edges a field my husband’s mom rents out to an area farmer, we noticed many green beans still clinging to the harvested plants. The mechanical harvester devoured the plant tops pretty well, but seemed to leave 10 or so beans per plant hanging close to the ground. We only picked a couple and were careful to wash them before sticking them in our mouths, but we wished that more farmers would invite members of the public to clean up in their fields. With U.S. unemployment at 9.7 percent, such waste just seems all the sadder (although the local deer might beg to differ).
Herbs (rosemary, sage, parsley, basil, savory, and fennel), nasturtiums, and tomatoes: For the first time, I got serious about my container garden. I started some herbs, tomatoes, and nasturtiums from seed, received parsley as a gift, brought a sorry-looking sage plant back from the dead, and even had volunteer marigolds. My refrain of “I really like my container garden this year” was surely dull, but my husband has not complained about the steady stream of pesto, nasturtium flowers (they taste like radishes!), and rosemary focaccia. Still to come: pickled nasturtium seeds.
Potatoes, beets, peas, etc.: And then there are the parental gardens. My husband’s mom and dad are both good gardeners, and between them, they grow everything from grapes to beets to taters. Every time we go a-visiting, we return with five-gallon pails full of food.
I am more of a freezer than a canner (an unfortunate pickling incident in the early ‘00s made me water-bath shy), and more of a berry picker than a mushroom hunter. I plan to keep broadening my palate, though. I can’t help but keep thinking that these field trips are expressions of my good fortune in life — the leisure time I have to explore the outdoors and the wealth of guidebooks my husband has collected over the years and his parents’ gardening know-how and generosity.
All the same, I believe some portion of this bounty can be shared and passed down through generations. If we can both transform our grocery stores and get outside of them sometimes, I think our dreams of thriving local food networks can come true.
Related recipe: Woodland Empanadas
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