Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Going local: Feeding her kids on waffles and frustration

By
January 23, 2008

“Mom, can we get Eggos?”

That’s my oldest son, Everett. He’s five-and-a-half, and he can spot a logo from across the street. We’re trying to cut down on his TV, but on Saturday, I was letting him watch a cute Disney movie about a girl who saves an old estate from would-be subdividers.

Eggos now come with a spy-decoder doohickey. I decided it was time for the talk.

“You know, sweetie,” I said, working up to it, “if they have a commercial on TV for food, it’s not that good for you. They spend all of their money making advertisements, instead of making the food good and getting quality ingredients. Do you understand?”

He said yes, he understood. We had the “quality” talk a couple of weeks ago, when we were purging his bedroom of cheap plastic toys.

“I’ll make waffles for you,” I said, “and we’ll use Gilda’s eggs. And they’ll be good for you, and you’ll know, because no one is in our kitchen making a commercial about them.”

The yolks of Gilda’s eggs.

Gilda’s our chicken. She’s a Buff Orpington, and she’s Ms. Reliable: she lays eggs all through the winter. We know they are healthy, not because of the lack of TV cameras, but because she eats grass, and dandelion greens, and blackberry vines, and slugs, and worms, and maggots, and spiders. Oh, my.

I try to be matter-of-fact with Everett about this kind of thing, but really, I’m angry. SO angry. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food all day while breastfeeding my youngest, Monroe, and I’m sure he’s been getting a good measure of MAD along with his milk. Last week it was Plenty; two weeks ago, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I keep adding more to my Amazon Wishlist, and getting angrier.

I’ve been hanging out on the periphery of the local-foods movement for the past few years, watching Flickr friends create delicious meals from their gardens, writing about the development of the locavores project, and occasionally trying to make a dish or even most of a meal out of produce from the farmers’ market, but never really throwing myself in deep. I proudly eat at Burgerville, the little burger chain that gets all of its produce locally and in season and its hamburger from Oregon Country Beef — grown around Madras, Oregon, where my mom grew up on a dairy farm, where my cousin owns a feedlot.

The whites of Gilda’s eggs.

Urgghhh. There’s the word. “Feedlot.” Now my stomach is churning. I’ve read three times, now, just why it is I shouldn’t eat animals that come from industrial farms, the ones that feed their cows and pigs and chickens corn, and soy, and corn and soy by-products. It’s not good for them. It’s SO not good for them, that it’s the main reason why we have so many diseases. You see, eating corn and other seeds — not grass — changes the pH of a cow’s stomach. Kablooey: E. coli. Mad cow. If you’re a chicken, salmonella. And the government subsidizes corn and soy, subsidizes the rapid destruction of our country’s farmland. That’s why all our animals are fed it — it’s cheap. Consequences be damned!

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My husband brought home breakfast sausage from Safeway last week, and I just looked at it in horror. I couldn’t believe he would betray me like that.

But even worse, the world has betrayed me. I have an MBA. I really should, by all rights, be approaching this from a capitalist point of view, or an economic point of view. But now the same principles that keep me from working for a tobacco company would keep me from working for Kraft, or Clorox, or PepsiCo, or General Mills. Don’t even get me started on ADM. Archer. Daniels. Midland. Even when I say it in my mind, I spit the words out with venom.

Did you know that many of today’s crops are genetically engineered with a “suicide gene,” a gene that won’t let the crop reproduce? Did you know that, for many food plants like wheat and tomatoes and apples, only 20 percent of the known varieties remain in existence? One in five? Did you know that your average carrot has one-third of the nutritional content as did a carrot in the 1930s? Did you know that crab is sent from the West Coast to China to be removed from its shells, and then back again to our supermarkets? Did you know that industrial farms are systematically stripping the topsoil from our arable land until nothing at all can grow? Did you know that most of America’s bees are sent to California every spring to pollinate the almond crop, that the resulting bitter honey is thrown away, that the bees eat high-fructose corn syrup and many of them just die from the stress?

Gilda.

I’m never eating an almond again.

It’s not easy for the kids, I’m sure, sunk in this world that is marketing YoGos to them as health food, where their school cafeterias are lauded for using food from local farmers when One. Ingredient. A Week. comes from local farms and the rest of the time it’s chicken nuggets, mini-pizza products, and animal crackers — neither animal nor cracker — packed with trans-fatty acids and various inventions of the food industry. It is this world that makes their mom a passionate, raving nutcase, going on and on to anyone who will listen about how she’s never going to buy processed food, as long as she lives.

I stare up at the boxes of Cocoa Puffs and Rice Krispies (it has only been a month, I haven’t nearly finished clearing out my pantry) and want to throw things.

It’s OK. I can do this. I learned how to strain cooked eggs and cream to make crème brûlée from a French-Moroccan chef in Charlotte, North Carolina. I learned how to emusify mayonnaise from the sous chef at the Cajun Cafe in Portland when I was 19. I learned how to make pesto using a mortar and pestle from a book; I learned how to caramelize onions by trial and error. My mom taught me to knead bread, make yogurt, and whip cream. I have made waffles, not once but many times.

I know how to mix together stone-ground organic wheat flour (ground by stone, the good stuff from the outside of the wheatberry stays intact), baking powder, and salt; separate Gilda’s eggs, beat the whites to stiff peaks, then fold them into the flour mixture combined with the egg yolks (tinged orange from the good nutrients in the weeds and slimy things living in our yard), melted butter (from cows fed on grass; it’s yellow in a way that reminds you what “buttery yellow” really means), and organic milk delivered from a local dairy in fat glass jars.

Leggo that Eggo. I will make waffles, I will serve them with butter and Madras carrot honey and, for me, whipped fresh cream and frozen Willamette Valley blueberries. It will not be fast or easy, there will be no toys free with purchase, my waffles will never be associated with a major motion picture. Everett will tell me that I am the “best cooker in the WORLD. I’m serious,” and later he will ask me for some other sort of food-product-that-is-not-really-food advertised on television and I will begin the conversation all over again.

It’s a start.

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Comments
There are 21 comments on this item
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1. by Mike on Jan 23, 2008 at 12:06 PM PST

Great post. Have you ever read “The Omnivores Dilemma”? It’s what motivated my wife and I to join a CSA and try to avoid even Whole Foods Market. I have one small correction for you. Mad Cow does comes from something much worse than cows eating corn, it comes from cows eating cows.

2. by erika on Jan 23, 2008 at 3:03 PM PST

Great post! Every day I read something more and more alarming. It’s overwhelming. Plastic bottles, vinyl shower curtains, plastic linings in canned foods, parabens in pretty much every product... I’m slowly trying to weed everything out and it is so very hard.

3. by MLO on Jan 23, 2008 at 5:33 PM PST

The allergy community has known this since the 1990s. It is only getting worse. No one would listen as we screamed into the wind - and now, I’m afraid it is too late to reverse this trend.

4. by GraceAnn Walden on Jan 23, 2008 at 7:39 PM PST

I think it is fine for the elite to become locavores, but growing up in NJ if we were locavores in the winter, we would eat nothing but turnips and potatoes. So we also ate frozen and canned food.

My ex-husband grew up in Montana and it was even worse there - very little fresh food year round.

In places with two crops, like here in Calif, of course those that want can more easily be locavores.

I would rather see supermarkets with any kind of fresh food in poor neighborhoods, but then that’s my bent. GraceAnn Walden, food writer

5. by OpusOne on Jan 23, 2008 at 8:08 PM PST

GraceAnne,

This is a very valid issue and is not so simple to solve with a one-size-fits-all approach. Awareness is the starting point -- trying to get people to think about what their options are and rethink if they have others.

6. by Rose on Jan 23, 2008 at 11:57 PM PST

Oh cool! I’ll have to add “Plenty” to my reading list. Thank you for the great article. I feel like I’m in almost the exact same place on going local (minus the chickens). For us it’s not just been a matter of general health or environmental consciousness but necessity. My 2 year old is allergic to corn in all it’s 50 billion derivatives. Right down to the corn based wax on a supermarket apple. Nothing like being forced to do something to make you realize how doable it actually is.

7. by Fasenfest on Jan 24, 2008 at 6:47 AM PST

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I swoon over stuff like this. It is great to see folks taking actions to regain a food system that has been turned over to industries with a very different bottom line then most average citizens. We turned over a system we assumed would be minded in a reasonable fashion and it is difficult to face off with the tricks and trade of industry. Frankly, we have been eating the spoils and fillers of corporate growth. And so we regain our ethic and principles by rethinking it all. But I do feel for folks who live in places where the opportunities to regain some of the sourcing (backyards, community gardens, local healthy grocery stores) are unavailable or who do not have the time to seek out create alternatives. Still, things such as re-evaluating your shopping trip (stay out of the middle aisles), buy in bulk when possible, eat less processed foods, avoid “convenience” and fast foods and, starting to cook at home again are things anyone anywhere can do. I understand how the locavore movement might present as a class issue but I think it is more a generational issue. That this generation (younger then 40?)is taking another look at how they shop and eat is great. Being 54, I remember taking the long walk with my mother to the produce stalls in the Bronx with a shopping wagon in tow. After loading it up we would “schlep” it back to our four-story walk up and carry it up the stairs in tandum. We were distinctly working class and managed to eat really well. We almost never ate out and my mom cooked great meals that were enjoyed at the table. So here’s to re-capturing a logic and lifestyle that was lost to the masters of industry and Madison avenue.

8. by GraceAnn Walden on Jan 24, 2008 at 9:16 AM PST

Another issue, not thought of by the elite, is what will do with all this infrastructure if we all go local? What will all those truck drivers, who schlep the chickens cross country do? And what will eating local do to the poor people in Chile and Mexico, who grow these fruits and vegetables?
How many farmers markets can supply a city the size of New York or even Oakland?
All this locavore energy could be put into something worthwhile for many.

9. by Fasenfest on Jan 24, 2008 at 1:52 PM PST

Hmmm, the “elite”. Funny who you are calling what. But, you are right, going back to a sustainable local system will be difficult and reguire creative solutions. But why not ask the elite of corporate comglomarates or huge multinational agri-industries who dismantled local systems in the first place if they would like to put their energy into something worthwhile like offering financial compensations, or interest free loans for local business startups, or incentives or job training or return some of the land subsistance farmers where removed from for the sake of “structural adjustments” that did very little for the “poor people in Chile and Mexico” Certainly they made enough money to give something back to the community. Ultimately I agree it is a complex issue but one thing is sure, staying on the same track will not solve anything. Nor will underminding the spirit of change that seeks (albeit from a priviledged position) to consider alternatives.

10. by GraceAnn Walden on Jan 24, 2008 at 2:26 PM PST

I wonder how many locavores are willing to give up black pepper, cinnamon and a zillion other spices. I guess, at least on the coast, we could build some salt ponds.

I don’t think the locavores have thought out their actions. What it would do to the general economy, the world economy.

We all love our farmers markets and the first homegrown tomato, but extracting oneself from the entire system is incredibly difficult and a time-waster imo.

Even if you go local, where will you get your t.p., soap, etc.

11. by Petrovame on Jan 24, 2008 at 3:19 PM PST

Being a locavore does not necessarily mean eating no canned or frozen foods. Even with my small freezer I have local rhubarb in there right now. Some of the CSAs here have ‘winter shares’ so they store carrots, etc. under proper conditions and you get them as you need them. I can also buy Morse’s sauerkraut made about 40 miles away, and canned or dried beans, squash, pumpkin from a local cannery. I don’t think that trying to eat locally means giving up spices, citrus fruit, coffee or tea...but responsible eating DOES mean making sure that those foods are sustainably grown and harvested and that the growers, the actual farmers, are fairly compensated. The rising prices for fossil fuels and their impending disappearance are having and will have much greater effect on truckdrivers, etc. than the local food movement.

12. by anonymous on Jan 25, 2008 at 11:06 AM PST

I think we all recognize that it’s a major problem that the poor don’t have access to quality food. However, how does continuing to support a broken food system solve that problem. How would her buying the eggo waffles have helped anyone?
The fact of it is that there are a lot of people who can’t afford good food, but there are a lot more people who could if they wanted to make it a priority.

13. by GraceAnn Walden on Jan 25, 2008 at 11:40 AM PST

I think it is important to work on many levels. But the locavore fad wastes time from real actions to change the system.

I think many people, would like to be more local, and cook more at home.

But the sad truth is, women are working outside the home and do the majority of the work inside the home.

Let’s tackle male insensitivity. Now there’s a local issue; close to home. :--)

14. by Holly on Jan 28, 2008 at 7:18 AM PST

I don’t see the locavore movement as a fad at ALL. I think it’s a very proactive way of instigating change in a small way, by creating demand for better-quality products on a smaller scale.

Any movement or system that attempts to avoid large “pyramids” of power (Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Microsoft, etc) brings money and power back into the hands of smaller communities and companies. This forces the big companies to adapt. All major socioeconomic changes begin in this small way, right down to the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. Boycotts worked wonders in that era, and spending our money away from the big grocery stores and away from big agri-business is as good as a boycott. Maybe the “system” is too big and tangled to change from the inside, but we can step outside the system and play our own game.

Also, it deserves mentioning that most social change begins with the “elite” because they are the only ones who have the time, money, and energy to devote to it. That doesn’t mean the change is not worth doing, or that the “non-elite” don’t stand to benefit from it. I like the efforts, for example, of Heifer International, and those intrepid folks who create neighborhood gardens in the city. Both those topics have been featured here on Culinate. While they may not be a catch-all solution, such actions are definitely an improvement in the quality of life for many “non-elite.”

Ms. Gilbert, I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for sharing it.

15. by Fasenfest on Jan 28, 2008 at 11:07 AM PST

Ms. Gilbert,

Kim just explained who “cafemama” was. I guess I am dense. Oh la la, sounds like it time for a lunch on some of that great bread and ham.

16. by GraceAnn Walden on Jan 28, 2008 at 11:31 AM PST

Neighborhood gardens have existed since the Victory gardens in the 40s. They are everywhere and local. :-)

Imagine you are living in Montana. Other than hunting and fishing, what locally grown foods can you eat in December?

17. by Fasenfest on Jan 28, 2008 at 12:34 PM PST

Great, Grace, that you remember and still notice Victory gardens. The history on them will answer much of your questions concering the motive force and ability for folks to live and eat locally. And a little research into the concepts of food preservation including root cellaring will answer others. The point is, when there is a will there is a way. I’m not sure any of us will find solutions to creating new ways of living when we are not really looking. I am of the belief that true longing and effort will supply answers. And then again, sometimes we are content to get stuck on the problems.

18. by cafemama on Jan 28, 2008 at 12:39 PM PST

Ms. Fasenfest: I’m looking forward to lunch :)

GraceAnn: in Montana, like most northern states, I’m thinking that the best bet is to eat potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, and other root vegetables that last the winter; it’s certainly unlikely you’ll find a lot of just-picked produce! I just finished reading ‘The Birth House,’ the story of a midwife living in Alberta, Canada in the early 1900s. sure enough, everyone ate potatoes, brown bread, cabbage, and onions (along with a bit of meat) the winter long. at some point electricity salesmen came through, peddling the hope of having eggs in the winter! (hens typically lay during the winter only if they have light in their coops; hens’ internal clocks, like those of plants, are governed by the amount of light there is every day).

It’s certainly a lot easier to start a local eating project in April, when farmer’s markets open (in most areas) and you can start a garden. but now’s the time to plan for next winter, ordering seeds for crops that will keep you in vegetables next January and February!

19. by anonymous on Jan 29, 2008 at 6:44 AM PST

I’ve just seen Closing The Food Gap by Mark Winne. It appears to be about how the food system got the way it is (with regard to the poor) and creating a food system that would make local food possible for every one.
It looks very interesting.

20. by Thomas S on Feb 11, 2008 at 11:14 AM PST

Hi Sarah
I like everything you write. I too have chickens
sadly my neighbor does not like them. I fresh meat and eggs taste devine.

Were you on apprentice? Would you be interested in
being a major part of a new profitable company? iF so email me

21. by Leda Meredith on Jun 4, 2008 at 5:39 PM PDT

I’ve been on a 250-Mile diet since August of 2007. It was great to read your blog and see the similar lines of thought and action that we’ve arrived at in our efforts to eat locally. I look forward to reading more!

Leda Meredith
Leda’s Urban Homestead
http://ledameredith.net/wordpress

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