Winter can be bleak for an East Coast locavore. I get giddy moving from spring through fall, from asparagus to peaches and finally to grapes, but come November my choices dwindle down to roots, apples and squash. Recently, I decided to loosen the reins when winter arrives and add the mangoes, oranges and pineapples that I don't allow myself during the bountiful growing season. Bananas for a locavore? Yes, I buy bananas, but only in winter.
When I discovered organics 10 years ago, I eagerly believed anything organic was superior. It didn't matter if I bought strawberries in January from Mexico as long as they were organic. Seasons and seasonality never came to mind. I certainly wasn't thinking about my pocketbook: $6 for eight strawberries?
Cracks in my belief system formed when I learned about our carbon footprint and the amount of fuel used to ship organic produce from all over the world year-round.
So I decided instead to focus on local foods that may not be certified organic but have few or no pesticides. Until World War II, local was all most humans had eaten, with the exceptions of spices brought over the crossroads of the Middle East and coffee and sugar from the Caribbean and South America. It didn't need a catchphrase; local was a way of life.
Now, people are rediscovering the wonders of eating as we're meant to eat, from fruits and vegetables grown within a reasonable proximity to our homes. I prefer local produce that isn't necessarily certified organic but that is raised without pesticides or with low spray in a sustainable and humane manner, rather than produce from thousands of miles away.
I started visiting the farmers markets with my baby daughter three years ago as something to do. At first, I was shy about talking to the farmers, asking about their growing practices and how to prepare such things as quince and kohlrabi. However, my excitement over the variety and the possibilities were overwhelming and, when I finally opened my mouth, the farmers welcomed my questions and eagerly gave me cooking ideas.
Try to find that at a grocery store.
The supermarket soon became a foreign destination, a place I went every few weeks for a box of cereal or a bottle of soy sauce. I fed my family almost entirely from the farmers markets. We basked in asparagus so firm they easily snapped in two and strawberries that actually stained Baby Girl's clothes because they were red all the way through, not just along the edges. As fall turned into winter and Thanksgiving approached, the markets shrank and I was left mourning the loss of my latest discovery: vine grapes.
Three years have passed since that first dreadful winter where I lived like a frontier woman who hadn't prepared for the long, cold drought, but since then I've found a new way to live where I can respect my now indelible (and sometimes annoying) locavore tendencies while taking advantage of the accessibility of the modern world. I continue my weekly trips to the same outdoor farmers market where I buy humanely raised and caught dairy, meat and fish and any available fruits and vegetables. Some of the farmers use greenhouses over the winter. However, I've also started appearing at the grocery store again and even buying produce.
While I applaud those who have challenged themselves to eat beets for three months straight, try explaining the logic to a 3-year-old and ditto to my taste buds.
I was able to reconcile buying fruit out of season with the help of master pastry chef Claudia Fleming's book The Last Course. For me, it was a small section she wrote on local eating -- not the desserts -- that struck the biggest chord. Fleming, formerly of New York's Gramercy Tavern, works hard to use fresh seasonal fruits in her baking, but when winter comes, she says, she searches out exotic fruits that are at their peak in other parts of the world rather than making do with the dearth of fruit during an East Coast winter.
Following her lead, I decided to practice what I'd call practical locavorism. I eat nearly 100 percent local during the spring, summer and fall, but in winter when produce is scarce, I invite other fruits and vegetables into my life: fair-trade bananas, boxes of oranges from Florida, and avocados, without which the Super Bowl would be lackluster. While I eat lemons year-round (they're my Achilles' heel), I take full advantage of fall-and-winter-seasonal Meyer lemons and use them in cakes, cookies, pasta dishes and more. I draw the line at produce that eventually comes into season in the Northeast, where I live. I won't buy cherries from Chile, but chirimoya, a creamy fruit native to Chile? Absolutely.
- Don't Deny Yourself: Do your best year-round. Buy as much as you can from local purveyors and fill in the gaps. I find using mostly local ingredients in my cooking and then adding in more exotic fruits and vegetables as accessories helps me get in a new fresh flavor without buying a million lemons. Coffee, lemons and chocolate are all nonlocal foods I can't live without.
- Get As Close As You Can: Oranges will never be local to New York City or blueberries to Florida, but wait until they're at their peak to buy, and then source them as close to home as you can. As an Easterner, I buy oranges from Florida.
- Read Supermarket Labels: Believe it or not, even at the supermarket in the center aisles, you can find locally produced goods. Read labels closely and you might find baking flours that are grown and milled within a few hundred miles of your home or peanuts grown a few states away. Think in quadrants of the U.S. -- North, South, East and West -- and you'll probably be able to track down some great local products within your quadrant to stock your pantry.
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