To begin to integrate local eating into your day-to-day life, you need to do a little research: Where do your nearby market gardeners sell their wares? Are there buying clubs? Community-supported agriculture plans? Farmers’ markets? How can you get hold of meat, seafood, eggs, and grains that are grown or caught sustainably in your area? Who has apples and strawberries in season?
This is a learning process, and--let’s be honest--it takes a while. Luckily, one discovery usually leads to another. Over the course of about two years, we’ve slowly become intuitive local shoppers. Honestly, we don’t notice anymore that we do it; we just have a different set of desires and values when it comes to buying food.
But for many would-be local eaters, cooking local food is just as challenging as finding it. So many of us are used to the effortlessness of convenience foods. Those of us who love to cook may tend to go to the grocery store with a list of items we need for certain recipes. Eating local requires you to start from the other end of the equation: This is what I have--now, what in the world do I do with it?
One thing that helps is to have a library of cookbooks that can provide inspiration in a pinch. Some, because of their philosophy or the way they are arranged, are far more helpful than others. The purpose of this post is to shine a light on a few of the best.
Now, I have a lot of cookbooks--the number was fast closing in on 250, last time I counted--but I certainly don’t have all of them. So I polled some of the other ELC web site authors to find out what their favorite eat-local cookbooks are. I’ve included their thoughts along with mine.
Some cookbooks are more than cookbooks; they’re lifestyle manuals. Marc nominates Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry. “They propose a three-pillar philosophy, one of which is eating locally,” he says. “The book is part cookbook, part educational essay (with some great statistics about the current food system and an exposing of myths about the cheap-at-any-cost system).” Lappe and Terry quote Barbara Kingsolver in their work, which reminds me--her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life has plenty of great recipes in it, too.
Jennifer BB puts a plug in for Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert. Part of the Mennonite Central Committee’s World Community Cookbook series, it explores the global impact of the food we put on our tables. “It’s arranged seasonally and then by food group/meal,” she says. “They also have a great blog and web site promoting local and sustainable eating.”
My personal favorites are the English River Cottage books by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. There are currently four of them: The River Cottage Cookbook, The River Cottage Year (more on that one later), The River Cottage Meat Book, and The River Cottage Family Cookbook. This winter there’ll be a fish volume, too. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a witty, enthusiastic advocate of both responsible sourcing and joyous indulgence (after all, food tastes far better when it is raised or grown with care). His work almost single-handedly changed the way I looked at food, and had quite a lot to do with my switch to a gardening and poultry-raising lifestyle.
We used the River Cottage DVD Pig in a Day to help us process and charcuterize a half-pig we bought from a local farmer. It was absolutely invaluable. It, and all kinds of other resources, are available from the River Cottage web site.
Sometimes a vegetable shows up in your CSA box, and you have simply no idea what to do with it. That’s when cookbooks arranged by ingredient come in especially handy.
“One of my favorites is an old standby: The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash,” says Julie Cummins. “The reason I like it so much is that it is organized the way I think a good cookbook should be: by main ingredient. That works for the way I cook. I go to the farmers' market (or my garden), buy what looks good, and then figure out what to do with it. With traditional cookbooks, you have to do everything the other way around. You peruse the book, find a recipe you like, then go buy the ingredients. In The Victory Garden Cookbook, if I look up winter squash, for example, it describes all the ways to cook it (steam, roast, boil, etc.). Then it gives some simple recipes. It also gives gardeners' tips.”
Julie also loves the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook. The San Francisco-based market is sponsored by The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture--of which Julie is Director of Education--but CUESA doesn’t make money on the cookbook. Julie simply likes it because “the recipes are excellent.”
Jennifer Maiser agrees that her favorite local-food cookbooks are arranged by ingredient. Her favorites include Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider, Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, and Jeff Cox’s The Organic Cook’s Bible.
Personally, I most often turn to Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a vast tome that contains tons of appealing, dependable recipes but is also good for basic information, such as how to bake a squash or poach an egg. Look up a vegetable alphabetically, and bingo! You’ll find an easy way to incorporate it into your dinner.
I also have a new treasure on my shelf: Cool Green Leaves & Red Hot Peppers by Michael Michaud and Christine McFadden. Like the other books mentioned here, it’s organized by ingredient. Unlike most cookbooks, it includes a lot of the really unusual vegetables that I either grow myself or get from equally veg-obsessed friends: purple-flowered choy sum, bitter melon, red mustard, salsify. I haven’t tested it out yet, but I’ve sampled Michaud’s recipes in the past and have the highest expectations.
As the year turns
Cookbooks organized by ingredient are definitely handy for local eating. But my preference, by and large, is that they be organized by season. That way, when you have several seasonally-simultaneous ingredients in hand, you can use them in concert with each other. By far my favorite of the genre is the aforementioned The River Cottage Year. Its Englishness doesn’t make it any less useful here in Georgia--in fact, quite the contrary, it led to my discovery that purple sprouting broccoli grows especially well here. Many of the recipes in this book are in heavy rotation in my kitchen.
Similarly English, yet similarly useful, is Sophie Grigson’s Country Kitchen, a charming volume with special emphasis on seasonal fruits.
“I also like any cookbook arranged by season,” says Julie Cummins. “One of my old standbys is Vegetarian Soups for All Seasons by Nava Atlas. I love making soups.”
A sense of place
Every locale has its own regional cookbooks. While some of them are chock-full of processed foods and exotic ingredients, others are true to their roots and are extremely useful when you’re trying to figure out what to do with locally grown products.
When I lived in Minnesota, I acquired Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson, a Scandinavian-influenced book full of ideas for wild rice, freshwater fish, game, and other northern delicacies. It even teaches you to make lutefisk--not that any sane person wants to know.
I still use that book regularly, but now that I live south of the Mason-Dixon line, I count myself lucky to have found John Martin Taylor’s Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking. It’s the only book I’ve ever seen that mentions our homegrown Carolina Gold rice. There’s also muscadine pie, sweet potato hushpuppies, and a whole chapter on dispatching pig parts.
There’s a flip side to this coin. I’ve often found that international cookbooks can be a boon in an eat-local kitchen. Cuisines from countries with climates similar to your own can teach you new ways of cooking old favorites. And authentic recipes have a strong tendency to use seasonally-compatible ingredients. Here in Georgia, we look toward regions with temperate to subtropical climates for our inspiration.
The skills to pay the bills
Sometimes a little extra kitchen know-how is what you need to get the job done. Julie Cummins is a devotee of The Food Substitutions Bible by David Joachim. “It's alphabetized by ingredient and it's really great for figuring out how to make do with what you have,” she explains. “It tells you how much honey or maple syrup to substitute for sugar and that kind of thing. It's also got extensive lists of varieties (such as beans, chiles, apples, etc.) and tells you what kind of chile to use if you don't have a pasilla. I've only had the book six months or so and am still discovering the bounty of information it holds!”
Preserving food is a big part of eating locally, but most people need a little instruction before they can create their first batch of pickles or chow chow. There are a lot of fabulous food-preservation books out there, but my hands-down favorite is The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service’s So Easy to Preserve. It covers canning, freezing, and drying, is rigorous about food safety, and contains absolutely delicious recipes. There’s also a web site and a DVD.
I’m sure everyone who reads this site has his or her own favorite eat-local cookbooks. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments box, for I will receive them gratefully--not that I need any excuse to buy more cookbooks for my burgeoning collection!
Jamie S. lives in rural Georgia and writes 10 Signs Like This, a blog that's part gardening journal, part cookbook, part sustainable lifestyle, and part short attention span.