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May 9-15, 2007

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bucolic bullshit?

Bucolic bullshit?: Oh, save us from the onslaught of smug accounts of making one's own salt!

Steady Diet of Book Deals

'Plenty' and the new phenomenon of ethical stunt-eating

By Katherine Mangu-Ward

The subtitle of Plenty (Harmony; $24), a book about what it's like to eat only food produced within a 100-mile radius, is "One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally." But honestly, the year as described by Alisa Smith and her partner James MacKinnon couldn't have been less raucous.

There's a lot of driving around the countryside, some nice dinners with friends, a cute garden plot that doesn't seem to need much tending, a little family trouble, many discussions about real estate and an extremely large amount of murky, nonspecific relationship tension. They try to make cheese which winds up being--get this!--too salty. They squabble over nothing while canning tomatoes and freezing corn. Wild! At the end of the winter, potatoes in a cupboard sprout and crack open the cabinet door. Whew! Raucous!

(To be fair, the Canadian, and original, title to this story is The 100-Mile Diet: One Man, One Woman and a Racuous Year of Eating Locally. But such restraint was likely deemed not racuous enough for American tastes.)

This oddly ordinary personal account of a slightly unusual year in the lives of a couple of thirty-somethings in Vancouver evokes the quiet dullness of real life. But it is precisely for that reason that for the first time--after reading dozens of accounts of ethical eating--I could almost imagine myself doing something like it. Or, more to the point, I could imagine someone who didn't have a book contract doing something like it.

Increasingly, tales of ethical eating feel more like stunts to sell books or articles and less like real efforts to figure out the right way, or even a realistically possible way, to live and eat.

Consider the recent New York Times articles on urban foraging--squirrel and sparrow for dinner, anyone? Or what about the family living for a "year without toilet paper." Book deals abound.

I'd like to blame Michael Pollan for all this. When I reviewed his stunt-eating book, I lamented that I hadn't thought of the book's premise--to trace four meals from the field to the table--first. Others, obviously, felt the same way and have entered the game with the intent to one-up Pollan. But I suppose Pollan can't be faulted for having flawed imitators.

But if Smith and MacKinnon are going to break from the pack and be stolid and prosaic, they should have done so a little more thoroughly. How much time did food preparation take compared with a normal year? How much more money did they spend? Was working in the garden hard? Did their social life suffer? What did a typical day look like?

No such systematic accounting is forthcoming. We do learn, however, that their first 100-mile meal--one of those nice dinners with friends--was $128.87. And that getting a $1-per-pound bargain on crates of miscellaneous late-season tomatoes is evidence that "farmlands are . . . the last redoubt of a gentler capitalism."

Then there's the $11 honey that they buy as a substitute for $2.59 worth of sugar. The marvelous honey has been procured from a picturesque retired banker turned beekeeper on a daylong road-trip-cum-shopping expedition. Their friend Ruben is along for the ride, and at the end of a long day he muses, "If grocery shopping were always like this, it wouldn't be a chore."

This is one of the more hilarious sentences in the book. Because, of course, if you had to drive 30 miles "though the 'burbs, the industrial parks, the outer ring of big-box mosques, Buddhist mega-temples, and ticky-tacky churches [through] the tunnel that plunges under the main arm of the Fraser River" every time you needed sweetener, grocery shopping would soon seem like quite a chore. Especially if, as is the case in Vancouver, not every day is a deliriously perfect spring day with "chocolate-colored cats sunning themselves on the dikes." Or, say, if you don't have a car.

Smith and MacKinnon address this argument briefly. Alisa goes to visit Sunny, a local eater in "pine country Minnesota," to prove that local eating is possible anywhere. As Alisa gives a mildly disdainful account of Sunny's friends' "fermentation experiments" with plums and "a jar of shaggy fungus in a muddy brown liquid" called mushroom tea, the reader feels a sudden kinship with the author. Yes, she's involved in this insane experiment, but it's not nearly as insane as some. Her life may be boring, but that's sort of the point.

Ridiculous subtitle aside, you can do what she and James are doing and still have a normal life. In contrast, Sunny's small collective is preparing for the Mayan apocalypse in 2012. "It's so nice to meet someone who has the same values I do," Sunny says wistfully, "but doesn't think the world is coming to an end."

Plenty contains minimal ranting about fossil fuels, limited anti-SUV rhetoric and only passing mention of the horrors of factory farms. They know who their audience is; they're writing for the converted. Instead, about three-quarters of the way through, the formerly vegetarian authors realize that their 100-mile diet isn't totally pure once animal products are introduced for much-needed protein. After all, where did the feed come from?

Then they realize that even veggies are fraught. Could they limit themselves to veggies that were only grown in the manure from cows that had eaten grass or feed grown within 100 miles? No. That was impossible. It wasn't desirable to limit farmers, who already have it hard enough, that way. And it didn't really matter for their experiment. Instead of going on a rant or a well-researched and fascinating essay, as Pollan does, they just shrug and move on, quoting Carl Sagan: "If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

There's a telling moment later, when the authors have already achieved a measure of fame in the blog world for their experiment. They are invited to a chef's dinner to test out a new 100-mile tasting menu. The grapes that went into of the wines, the publicist sheepishly reveals, are actually from "nearly 200 miles away. We just couldn't find a local red that had the strengths to pair with lamb," he says.

And so, out of nowhere, here is the big question, the ultimate conundrum of the 100-mile diet: Why bother? There was a bottle of good red wine on the table. Did we have to turn it into something more complicated?

The authors, who were "trying to be agreeable about the red wine, murmured supportive nostrums." But they were dining amidst food purists who wound up getting the lamb course and its offending wine stricken from the menu. James chalks it up to "a sense of adventure." This explains the increasingly absurd experiments in ethical eating underway elsewhere better than anything else I've heard.

Some of the escalations in über-ethical eating at the haute cuisine level are just the slow dawning of inevitable conclusion from certain premises. The environmental illogic of importing Italian bottled water to a restaurant based around local produce has finally penetrated, with Chez Panisse's Alice Waters recently announcing her intention to serve tarted-up tap water instead of their usual offering of imported Santa Lucia.

After their first pricey dinner, Alisa worries that the experiment "might not even be possible." It has taken the better part of a weekend day and $130 to make. She is worried about price, something none of her competitors in the ethical stunt-eating field give more than a passing nod to in their accounts. But she's also worried about time. Even a freelance writer and a novelist have to work sometimes. The acquisition of three cases of corn takes up "one half of a precious Saturday." Of an outing for berries with a girlfriend, followed by canning, she says, "Making jam had taken up all afternoon and evening, but the last thing I'd call it was work. It was living."

This is a legitimate point: Those who defend the pleasures and economies of modern life against the romanticizers of a zero-impact, local-eating, fresh-fruits-and veggies past often overemphasize the soul-numbing drudgery of rural life. Picking berries and turning them into jam while chatting with a friend has been one of womankind's great pleasures for centuries. But just because it isn't awful doesn't mean that it isn't time-consuming labor. And in modern times, laying a hand on local berries in the first place can be pricey, U-pick or not.

The authors have the good grace to admit that their household may have started to seem a bit "unusual." James sees the house through his brother's eyes in November, nine months into the experiment. Alisa has just bleached the walls to rid the house of weevils and other tiny wheat-dwelling bugs. The kitchen is full of the scent of rotting apples and homemade sauerkraut, which is basically fermented cabbage and smells "not unlike the smell of an unflushed urinal at the end of a long summer day."

They also admit that they don't ever have to grapple with real scarcity, real privation. When an inconvenient potato blight that devastates the harvest of many farmers in their area. They find a few potatoes, and everyone else just eats potatoes flown or trucked in from elsewhere.

Smith and MacKinnon know that they're not going "back to the land" or "starting a revolution." They aren't in the business of polemics. Their experiment--as with most of the spate of ethical stunt-eaters (even Barbara Kingsolver is not immune) is modest, and, indeed, it succeeds modestly.

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