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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Week of Eating Locally -- and What I Learned

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 7:00 AM

  • Photo by Steve Truesdell

It is 4:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I'm sitting in a Starbucks' drive-through on the verge of delirium. "How did it get to this?" I berate myself as I order coffee and a chocolate croissant. "If this is what eating locally does to a person, count me out."

I am just eight hours into Day One of my "week of eating local" challenge, yet here I am in the parking lot of a multinational corporation, slurping down mass-produced Indonesian coffee and gobbling a defrosted pastry baked in San Francisco. As I suck down my caffeine fix and begin to come to, I try to figure out where I went wrong.<

My plan had been to spend May 6 through May 15 eating only foods sourced from within 150 miles of St. Louis. It was the locavore equivalent of a crash diet: no salt, no coffee, no olive oil, no Burgundy.

Admittedly, the parameters I'd chosen were somewhat arbitrary. "Think about what is important to you," I kept hearing when I asked the experts how to eat local. I never got a straight answer — because there isn't one. The group organizing St. Louis' Local Food Challenge — which kicks off for most participants on May 27 — set a 150-mile radius for its boundaries, but the rest was a bit nebulous. Did I have to stick to it every day, every meal? For how long? Are raw ingredients the most important metric, or can we include independent business such as craft breweries, which manufacture here even if they use hops from, say, Bavaria? As a prominent local chef would later tell me, "Once you start going down this path, you find yourself with questions, not answers."

So what is important to me? I realize that I want to get to the root of what it means to eat local — not just the complicated task of defining terms, but what it really feels like, as a food lover, home cook, a busy mother and someone on a budget, to forgo food from far away.

As I quickly find out, it's not nearly as romantic as it sounds. Actually, it's pretty awful sometimes, especially if you go for strict definitions and firm rules. Those locavores gaily frolicking through fields of squash blossoms on the cover of a food magazine? Ten bucks says their smiles are as airbrushed as a Victoria's Secret swimsuit catalog.

And yet it's also not that simple. I would discover many things over the course of this one, very long week.

First, coffee is an inalienable right.

Second, you can only eat so many eggs without becoming homicidal.

Third, and most importantly, what it means to eat local is wholly undefinable. It's a matter of personal choice, it's complicated and it's something a person may come to love only after devouring a perfectly prepared Berkshire pork chop.

Click here for more gorgeous photos of locally grown food.

"Maddie would be so disappointed in me." That's one thought swirling in my head as I sit in the Starbucks parking lot.

I first learned of the St. Louis Local Food Challenge this past February from Maddie Earnest, owner of Local Harvest Grocery and Cafe. The concept was still in the early stages of development, she explained, but the idea was to come up with a way to honor the ten-year anniversary of the Tower Grove Farmers' Market.

As the plan solidified, Earnest and her business partner, Patrick Horine, came up with the idea for a 30-day local-food challenge. During the month of June, challenge participants are encouraged to eat as much local food as possible. They can take it as far as they want, Earnest notes — commit to using only local seasonal produce for three meals per week, say, or make a complete switch to locally raised meat and dairy. The goal is less ideological purity than raising awareness of the bounty within 150 miles of St. Louis. Period.

I'm the one who decides to complicate things. A textbook overachiever with a stubborn streak, I opt to take the challenge to the most extreme level possible. For one week, I vow, I will eat only items that could be sourced from within 150 miles of St. Louis.

It doesn't start out that badly. Aside from extreme sleep deprivation coupled with the necessary caffeine detox (no one grows coffee beans in Missouri, after all), I begin the day with smug optimism. I haven't yet made it to the store for provisions but fortunately have a few local eggs on hand. "Scrambled farm-fresh eggs? This won't be hard at all," I tell myself as I crack them into a mixing bowl.

Without thinking, I reach for some cream and salt, only to stop myself. I don't have any local cream, and I cannot think of how to get local salt. Then there's the cooking-fat situation: I have no local oil in my pantry, and my butter is mass-produced (somewhere in the U.S.A., the label assures me).

"It won't be that bad," I muse, pouring the whisked eggs unadorned into a non-stick skillet.

After the second, bland bite, I open my computer and begin researching a locally sourced way to season. "If there's a Saline County in Missouri," I curse, "then there has to be a way to get salt." The cracks are already starting to form.

"I don't want to say it, but I think you were setting yourself up for failure," Brian DeSmet laughs when he hears about my locavore plan. "If you're trying to be so extreme — I mean, maybe you could get salt in southern Illinois 150 years ago, but come on. People have been trading for thousands of years."

DeSmet speaks with me from his office: the small, one-seventh-acre garden at Schlafly Bottleworks. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic proponent of local eating than DeSmet. As Schlafly's farmers' market and garden manager, he has made it his mission to reconnect people to the local food economy.

Yet even he thinks my extreme approach is untenable at best and pointless at worst.

"An issue you have is that 100 years ago, eating local wasn't a thing. It was just what people did," DeSmet explains. "A lot was grown and made locally — maybe even salt — but over time, it has all been consolidated into a few big corporations. The systems just aren't there."

For DeSmet, local eating is about restoring these systems and supporting the local food economy. That's what is important to him. Why, he asks, is eating locally important to me? "What purpose does it serve?"

Next: Thinking about what motivates us to eat locally.

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