Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tuesday, August 14: Day 14

How deep do you go? By that, I mean how deep into the food production process do you look to determine what is "local"? For example, we have several good ice cream companies here in town. The ice cream is made here. Most of the milk probably comes from within our radius, but the sugar and many of the flavorings undoubtedly do not--chocolate, coffee, coconut, and many others. Can this still count as local? Sure, if you want it to. For the purposes of our experiment, we decided it did not. But we've always given special status to locally owned companies over national chains.

So how deep do we go? I think we're going pretty deep. We're basically buying pure ingredients for almost everything--we have bought almost no "value-added" foods, or foods which are prepared in any way. The exceptions are yogurt, which is a value-added milk product. We are eating plain yogurt, so we don't face the question of added sweeteners, etc. But our yogurt does list powdered milk as an ingredient. This week I will find out where it comes from. The the elephant in the room for us is certain meat products, specifically sausages. They have a bunch of seasonings in them that we have not accounted for—pepper, fennel, coriander, and some others, depending on the type of sausage. Some of these may be local, but some certainly are not. This kind of snuck up on us—it didn't really occur to us until we were underway, so we have opted not to make an issue of it.

The question of "value-added" foods is an interesting place to study the modern food system. What we have learned is that the realities of business make it nearly impossible to have a prepared or value-added food item that can be 100% traced back to a single local area. There is of course the question of salt, but what if we overlook that? Cheese is probably the closest we can come, but my recollection is that the enzymes and cultures the cheesemakers use are purchased from elsewhere (another one to research this weekend). This is why we like to buy directly from producers—if we want to know something we just ask the guy/gal who makes or grows it.

Of course any sort of baked item is likely to have flour from Kansas or North Dakota, maybe dairy (butter, milk, buttermilk, milk protein, etc) from Wisconsin (or New York or California), oil or shortening made from commodity crops (corn, soybeans, sunflowers, or others) that are grown all over and have no traceability at all, and perhaps sugar, which may come from Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, or any number of places (and those are just the ones inside the US).

I guess where I am going with this is that the way we conceive of something as basic as a recipe is a product of a very widely-spread agricultural economy. "The system" seeks out areas that have optimum conditions for a given crop and producers there specialize in that. So getting a 100 mile apple pie is a real trick—for the crust you need wheat that comes from a fairly dry place, and you need butter or lard which come from animals that need plenty of greenery—not much overlap between the two. And of course you need the apples, which can grow a lot of places, but not in western Kansas or North Dakota where your wheat came from. And you'll need a bit of sugar, as well. Cane sugar is a tropical crop, but beet sugar is grown in wide range of climates. But if you get sugar at the grocery store, there is only a 30% chance it is from sugar beets. Sure, you can use honey or maple syrup. Each will leave its own flavor imprint on your pie, which may be good or bad depending on your taste. One thing we can guarantee is that the pie will be really soupy, as both maple syrup and honey contain a lot of water. You could maybe add a bit of tapioca or arrowroot starch to thicken it up, but those are both products of the rainforest. . . So where where does this leave us? Nowhere in particular except to make it clear that there is no "purity" to be had, and that if you choose to learn the history of your food it is a complex plot that you may have difficulty following. But it sure is interesting, and you'll meet some great people along the way and learn a lot.

Menu for today:

Breakfast: Wheat bran cereal, yogurt with maple syrup, apple cider.

Lunch: Assorted things from the fridge (hot dogs, veggies)

Dinner: Pizza from the wood-fired earth oven. Whole wheat crust, home-made tomato sauce, Farmer John's cheese and Pecatonica Valley Farms Greenbush Italian Sausage. Yummy! Dessert of whipped cream and preserved rhubarb (probably with some sugar in it, but I am not sure, maybe honey).

Sorry,no pictures. We had good friends in from out of town and they have 4 kids 7 and under. Mayhem!