I decided a month ago that I wouldn't go to Fred Meyer in October. I'm a sucker for silly challenges, and I was feeling like my life wasn't sustainable, with all its driving and consuming. I wanted to know what I could do without and where things came from. Not going to the supermarket might not sound like much, but I've more or less gone every few days for the last several years, and it's become a part of life.
I figured I would mostly eat "local" in the sense my sister coined -- from one's own supplies. (How fitting is this print someone just gave my friend Christina!) My sister has tried this herself at times, but I think her real inspiration comes from our mother, who always says she has no food in her house, to which my sister always replies, You could eat for months!
I wanted to test that theory. I wanted to drive less and shop less, and I thought it would be a fun experiment. What could I get locally? Would I eat better, or worse? To the extent that I did shop, I chose, somewhat arbitrarily, to buy locally produced food from locally owned stores.
One of the first things I learned is that the local beer is actually pretty good. I happen to live within walking distance of Silver Gulch (the northernmost brewery in the US), which is closer even than the spring where I get water. Years ago I decided I didn't care for their beers, but I tried again and quite liked the Pilsner. I mention beer because I remember Bill McKibben saying he'd switched to local beer. It cost twice as much, so he drank half as much, and it all worked out. Even better when you can walk there.
October started warm, so one day I went looking for lowbush cranberries. I didn't find any on the ski trails, so I rode my motorcycle 35 miles to a spot where I'd seen good ones while looking for moose in September. A gallon of gas to my gallon of berries seemed both outrageous and not that surprising. I could have biked there, I thought after. It would have been a hilly ride, and taken all day, but probably been a pretty good day.
About a week in, I realized I was crossing a threshhold. I started to finish off the easy, sweet, and fatty foods -- the bread and cheese (and all its variations); the yoghurt, fruit, and granola; the Nutella, mac and cheese, and hot chocolate. Ordinarily I would have just replaced these foods. Instead, I started eating oats, honey, pasta and rice. When the raisins disappeared, I stopped grabbing a few every time I walked past the counter. I had lots of frozen blueberries and cranberries, but turning them into something sweet took just enough effort to discourage snacking.
It became clear to me that eating local would take more time (coming from someone who fairly regularly ate instant camping food at home). Two weeks in, I went caribou hunting up north with some friends. It was the kind of trip that normally would have sent me to Fred's for ramen and mashed potatoes, candy bars, and some kind of meat. This time I cooked up some energy bars with molasses, oats, and peanut butter and dried moose jerky on top of the wood stove. (Then I mooched cheese from a friend and ate most of his tortilla chips. Sorry Mark!) It all tasted good, but it took time. I started to appreciate things like canned beans -- they're already cooked! But I also realized that some things I never make because I think they'll take too long, like muffins and cornbread, are actually super easy.
As things ran out, I got creative. I allowed myself milk from Delta Junction (you can get it at the feed store), but when I ran out one day and wanted something sweet, I mixed blueberries, maple syrup, and a chunk of frozen banana into coconut milk. It wasn’t bad. Another night, I made real popcorn (I've had those kernels for years) for dinner, with nutritional yeast.
I tried to think broadly about buying local. None of my friends need firewood this year, so instead of going into the woods alone with a chainsaw, I went to the local sawmill and paid 35 bucks for a pickup load of planer ends -- dry wood, cut locally, milled in town. It's the same place I got the wood for my cabin. Their commercial cuts outside town are unsightly at first, but turn into pretty good moose-hunting spots after a few years.
One night I bought a beautiful hand-made book of poems from a friend; another night I so wanted to read a particular novel that I didn't wait the few days to order it through the local bookstore and got it at Barnes and Noble instead. I used the ATM from a local bank, and probably could have figured out which gas stations sell gas refined in Alaska. It occurs to me that how far you take it, and how you choose to do it, depends on your goal. You'll take one path if you want to reduce your carbon footprint and probably a slightly different path if your main goal is to keep your dollars in the community.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise, but the pressure to shop was impressive. I bought some glue from Michaels (I needed it), and they gave me a coupon for 40 percent off my next purchase. The Sunday paper is heavy with similar coupons and ads. How can you afford not to shop?
I realize there are many people who do without by no choice of their own, and I don’t mean offense to them. But I think I'm a sucker for the quaint and totally unAmerican idea of not shopping, or at least buying things used. I wonder if Rev. Billy's Church of Stop Shopping, which became the Church of Stop Bombing in the early 2000s, ever switched back.
My friend Ian pointed out the other day that biologically speaking, Alaska is not particularly productive. But I have salmon, moose, and caribou in my freezer, along with rhubarb, blueberries, and those late-season lingonberries. One night I made a stew with some moose my friend's dad shot in their yard and carrots Ian grew next door.
Ian and I now have chickens that give us seven or eight eggs a day.
That said, there are many things one can't get locally. I haven't found local cheese, nor would I really want to, when the world is full of delicious cheeses. I can buy good coffee roasted in Anchorage (or Fairbanks, for that matter), but I already miss my Café Bustelo espresso, its yellow can reminding me of New York. I miss my Bonne Mamman jam and the memories it brings, even if I have some delicious jam from a friend. I will miss my Thai chili paste with basil leaves.
I've proved no good at rationing, which I actually see as a good thing. My father had a habit of saving special foods for special occasions, which resulted in decade-old condiments and freezer-burned wild game. I eat the best things first. Why not?
I've been fairly flexible, allowing meals out, mooching, and the occasional vending machine candy bar. It's been a good lesson in doing without, an impetus to cook real food, and a way to clear shelves of stuff I never eat. I've been surprised at how much one can get locally. I certainly haven't lost any weight.
Others are taking the experiment much more seriously, and it's fun to think about an all-Alaskan diet. Fats would have to come from animals (rendered from waterfowl?), but could include lots of fish oil. Sweets would be berries, maybe apples, honey, and carrots. In a sense, this is the question of what would happen if shipping to Alaska were somehow interrupted and supermarket shelves went quickly empty.
With a few days to go, things are getting interesting. I have pounds of rye flour left, dried beans, udon noodles, whey protein powder, and a bottle of clam juice. But I'm out of butter and peanut butter, and I could use some fruit. Yesterday, craving fresh food, I ate a pint of salsa from Anchorage. (While the tomatoes probably came from California, I imagine that eating locally prepared foods and eating out are great ways to keep money in the community.)
If I invited someone to dinner now, I'd be tempted to say I don't have any food, but it wouldn't be true. There's plenty of moose in the freezer, a little oil to fry it in, and salt and pepper to season. My sister was right.