by Val Webb
I confess: I’m guilty of wanton lust. It happened in the aisle of our neighborhood Fresh Market this afternoon, when I was suddenly confronted with a display piled high with gorgeous imported chocolates. Here I was, on the very first day of the 2008 Eat Local Challenge – an entire month pledged to consuming only foods grown and produced within 200 miles of my front door — and I had wandered smack into the valley of the shadow of Godiva… my favorite luxury.
But I was headed for the produce department, and I was on a quest. The Fresh Market is a wonderful and eclectic grocery, a feast for the senses where classical music wafts overhead through air scented with exotic spices, and I knew it had the most impressive vegetables in town. Even better, every item is labeled with the area of origin. I live in a mostly rural state, in a city surrounded by agriculture: vast cotton and soybean fields lie just beyond the suburbs; I’ve seen sweet potatoes growing out there, and Silver Queen corn. So I naturally assumed that our local grocery stores would be well stocked with South Alabama produce, right?
Well, not exactly. Fresh from South America…Product of Mexico..Washington State…Carmel Valley, California. Feeling deflated, I spoke with a representative of the store’s produce section. He was kind and sympathetic, but he couldn’t help.
“Within 200 miles?” he repeated thoughtfully. “No, we don’t have a single thing. We had some local okra a while back, but we don’t have any now.” Suddenly, I felt the circle drawn on my map start to shrink.
My next stop was the organic produce counter at a spacious new health food market. I was surprised and disappointed to strike out again. The beautiful winter squash, broccoli crowns, tomatoes and onions, piled up in tantalizing pyramids, all wore cheerful stickers attesting to the fact that they had traveled more than 1,000 miles from farms in Mexico. (Amazingly, that’s still considerably less than the 1,500 miles an average food product travels in the US… a practice that gobbles up 100 billion gallons of oil every year. Check out the journey from the farm to your fridge with video artist Molly Scwartz in Watch Your Foodometer.)
“I’m so sorry,” said the young woman at the cash register in the health food market. “We’re working on getting a contract for some local produce. I don’t know if it will be this month.”
So, it’s going to be a skimpy menu at my table for a couple of days, until the first Farmer’s Market of the fall season kicks off downtown. We lost the contents of our freezer (including some of our summer garden bounty) last month when the door failed to close properly. But I won’t starve — outside, the tender baby kale is ready to be thinned. Our homemade yogurt qualifies for the Challenge, because it’s made from milk produced inside my map circle. Likewise the block of homemade mozzarella cheese, which I sliced at lunchtime and enjoyed with a big dollop of the green tomato chow-chow that The Perfect Man created from our summer harvest. Tomorrow evening, when I’m caught up on illustration work, I plan to do a little bread baking. It will be simple fare until Saturday, and then I’ll plot a course for next week.
Val Webb is an illustrator and clay artist living in Alabama. Val's writing can be found on her blog, The Illustrated Garden.