How Did That Happen?
Last week I was joking with a friend about how misleading my typical grocery store cartload looks. “There’s absolutely no produce,” I said, “but it’s because we buy all our vegetables at the farmers market.”
It wasn’t until today, as I pondered my most recent grocery list, that I realized how little we really buy there anymore. Every week or two I have to pick up dog food, milk and orange juice. More often than not I add some deli meat and cheese slices. And the rest is pure Guilty Secret food: Coke, potato chips, bologna.
But that’s about it. If you get rid of the junk, all we need from the grocery store is milk, orange juice, dog food, and sliced things to put between bread. Everything else we have found ways to source locally and affordably.
This seems incredible to me, because it happened without my noticing. I became aware years ago that during the summer I would generally wheel my cart right past the produce section without slowing down. Since we had started to eat seasonally, it was simple to find salad fixings, potatoes, and squash at any of our local markets, at least during the high growing season.
Then about a year ago, a last-minute menu change necessitated a run to Harris Teeter for boneless chicken breasts. (Normally we get locally-raised leg quarters, or whole birds that we roast or break down ourselves.) After perusing the brightly lit shelves of the poultry section at the grocery store, I hefted a packet of mostly-unfrozen breasts and carried it to where Miss Chef stood by our cart. “I can’t really tell, but I think there’s eight in here,” I told her. “I think there’s another layer underneath.” She gave me a patient, if somewhat pitying look and said, “No, there are only four. That’s how thick they are.”
I didn’t believe her. She still handled industrially raised birds at work, but I had gotten so used to the reasonably-sized breasts of pastured chickens—you know, the ones that are actually capable of holding up their own body weight—that my brain absolutely could not conceive of the size of these monsters. It wasn’t until we got the package home and unwrapped that I was really convinced. I was also a little freaked out, and wary about eating such freakishly overgrown meat.
That was my first hint that I was on a completely different rail than the average American eater. Our first forays into eating seasonally and locally came as an “every little bit helps” effort. Even if we still bought industrially grown bacon, at least our eggs were sustainably produced. Little by little we found new markets and vendors—Uno Alla Volta brought us mozzarella to go with locally grown tomatoes, Carolina Artisan Bread made the bread to go around those sliced things, farmers started raising more laying hens to meet demand. Fish markets have exploded, mushroom growers are competing for most exotic varieties. And we’re swimming in it all, stocking our pantry with local flour, butter, potatoes and beans.
Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, we largely opted out of the mainstream food culture. We’ve made the mental adjustment to consider which farmer has carrots this week, rather than assuming we can always pick some up at Harris Teeter. And I don’t even go into the meat section of the store anymore (well, except when I’m having a craving for a bologna sandwich).
So no, we’re not perfect local eaters. We eat out way too often during the week, and not at the fantastic local restaurants I’m always promoting online. I am addicted to Coke (the legal kind). And I eat way too many sandwiches when I should be cooking some of that local pork in our freezer and cabbage in the fridge.
But the very fact of our shortcomings gives me hope. Because my concern about our local food movement today is that it doesn’t reach 90 percent of Americans. The people who want the most for their dollar still have to be convinced of the value of fresh, seasonal foods. But if we allow for imperfection in everyone’s food choices, maybe we can use the taste of ripe local tomatoes as a doorway drug. Maybe that’s the foot in the door that will lead them to try some of those carrots and pasture-raised eggs. Then maybe, like me, they will find themselves 10 years down the road with a grocery cart empty of everything but orange juice and Coke.
Because, c’mon, we all need a bad habit, right?
Alison Leininger is a freelance writer highlighting local chefs, farmers and markets. In addition to WFAEats, her work has appeared in Creative Loafing and Edible Charlotte. You can read more of her writing at her food blog Amuse Bouche and her personal blog Flartopia.