By Kim O'Donnel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
A harvest celebration. That's how historians refer to the first Thanksgiving in 1621, when English settlers and their new Native American neighbors gathered to feast on the fruits of their first harvest in the New World.
Nearly 400 years later, Thanksgiving is a far cry from the days of farming, hunting and gathering in the New England wilderness. Today's feast is more likely to be an industrialized affair, prepared with food of the long-distance, prepackaged variety.
On its way from farm to plate, food in the United States travels an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 miles, 25 percent farther than in 1980, according to Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based environmental nonprofit organization.
With a season-less global marketplace at our command, it has become easy to buy South American asparagus to go with this year's turkey and to forget how to eat as prescribed by Mother Nature, as our forefathers did. But Thanksgiving presents the perfect opportunity to get back in touch with our neighbors -- the family farms -- and regain sight of where our food comes from, by creating a meal from local ingredients.
The spinach scare in California and books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" have helped spark renewed consciousness about our food chain. But the reawakening has been going for years. In the Washington area alone, you can find farmers markets seven days a week during the growing season, an indication of consumer awareness and demand. FreshFarm Markets, celebrating its 10th season at Dupont Circle, now operates six markets in the District and Maryland. Nationally, the trend is similar; according to the 2004 National Farmers Market Directory published by the Agriculture Department, there were 3,706 farmers markets on record in 2004, more than double the number in 1994.
There also has been a groundswell of grass-roots activism around eating locally. In 2004, an ad hoc group of culinary enthusiasts in San Francisco came together around the premise of eating food grown or raised within 100 miles of the Bay area. They called themselves "Locavores."
In August 2005, the Locavores upped the ante on a Web site, http://eatlocalchallenge.com/, asking people to try a local diet for an entire month. Meanwhile, two writers in Vancouver were already well on their way to completing an even more ambitious year-long "100-Mile Diet."
For some, a year of diligently sourcing foodstuffs might sound like a daunting task.
The way to get started, say local food activists, is one bite at a time, one day at a time. "Start small" is the first item on the "Getting Started Guide" on the 100-Mile Diet Web site, http://100milediet.org/: "You can start with a single meal, a 100-Mile day, a one-week commitment."
"If people made the effort even 20 percent to eat local, it would have a huge impact on the environment, the local economy and their communities," says Sarah Irani of Frederick. Irani, a 29-year-old sculptor who moved to the area from rural Michigan six years ago, says she originally became interested in organic food for health reasons. Moving to a more densely populated area shifted her focus to a local diet.
"Eating local isn't just about health," says Irani. "The more time you spend eating really good food, your taste buds acclimate. I recently had the greatest bunch of broccoli from the Frederick farmers market. It was so unbelievably delicious. And it didn't sit on a truck for three weeks, frozen."
Maryland farmer David Smith agrees. "I always like to use the honey analogy when I talk about the taste of local food," he says. "The bees visit the local flora. We smell the air and our senses and our taste buds are attuned, so when we buy a local honey, it tastes better because we are smelling and tasting something familiar. It's also good for allergies for the same reason."
Smith, who has made farming a second career since 2000, runs Springfield Farm, a 67-acre family property in Baltimore County. Besides taste, Smith says, there's the obvious freshness factor.
"When you come to our farm to buy a dozen eggs, they were laid that day or the day before, compared to those from a factory farm which are probably several months old," he says. In addition to the eggs (available daily) and a variety of turkey breeds (see local turkey resource list on Page 6 for details), Smith sells chickens and a variety of pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb and rabbit.
After participating in her first Eat Local Challenge (and joining the band of bloggers at http://eatlocalchallenge.com/), Irani started a garden with her new husband and began the legwork to form a local chapter of Locavores. The Frederick group started meeting in August.
Thanksgiving, given its harvest timing (remember that feast in 1621?) and one-day scope, is a prime opportunity to experiment with eating locally. Just last month, Locavores and 100-Mile Dieters joined forces with several other eat-local advocate groups to pose a "100-Mile Thanksgiving" challenge on their Web sites.
Here in the Washington area, with a long growing season and a climate more temperate than that of our northern neighbors, pulling off a local feast is fairly easy. All those classic Thanksgiving favorites -- sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, apple or pumpkin pie, apple cider and a green vegetable -- are available right up until the holiday, from farms within 100 miles of the city.
Pound for pound, local turkeys undoubtedly cost more than their mass-produced supermarket counterparts. Smith won't dispute that. But he explains why you shell out a little more for a local bird.
"Local farms typically will sell at the true cost of raising the product," he says. "When we sell a turkey for $3.50 per pound, that's what it costs us to raise it and to pay us a living wage. When you're taking care of the environment and practicing good animal husbandry, you deserve more than a minimum wage; you deserve a white-collar wage."
The dollars for a local bird keep the local economy alive. "When you eat local, you are supporting family farms and their continued existence, which is what our agricultural system was built on in the first place," Smith says.
If you're worried that such an undertaking will require a long-distance road trip, put your mind to rest. The farms can come to you. In addition to several farm markets that are open through Thanksgiving (four of them -- Takoma Park, Dupont, Arlington Courthouse and Falls Church -- are open year-round), the region boasts several food co-ops and small local grocery chains. For turkeys alone, we uncovered eight farms within 100 miles taking Thanksgiving orders through this week.
In addition to Thanksgiving staples, cooks can find local milk and butter for the mashed potatoes, eggs for dessert, lard for the pie dough, sausage for the stuffing, herbs to season the bird, and even chestnuts, if they get lucky.
Irani cooked her first local turkey last year after buying it from the Frederick market, and she proclaims it "the greatest turkey I have ever had."
"The flavor was juicy, it wasn't dry, and it was my first time cooking one!" she exclaimed. But more than anything, she was proud to have prepared a meal so in keeping with the spirit of the holiday.
"In our modern culture, Thanksgiving is the last vestige of feast as celebration," she says. "It's an offering to people you care about. It's really a beautiful thing."
Kim O'Donnel's food blog, A Mighty Appetite, is updated daily onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.