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New Isolation, New Community July 11, 2010

Posted by maggieknight in Une diète pour La Belle Province.
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We set out to see if local eating was possible for your standard 20-something, apartment-dwelling student couple. We don’t have the farm that helped sustain Barbara Kingsolver and her family, or the budget of two working professionals like James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, or access to a car (which makes trips directly to the farm to buy bulk amounts of tasty things more feasible). We don’t have a good ability to store a large amount of food–we have a small fridge and a tiny freezer. What we do have are the decent amounts of time and flexibility that come from having no dependents (well, unless you count the family of cats we are fostering from the SPCA) and doing research work from home, and the bonus of being fairly healthy, strong young people with no mobility problems (allowing us to haul back silly amounts of produce). We’re lucky to live in a large city well-supplied with permanent farmers’ markets and in a neighbourhood that is home to two pocket markets a week.

Foster kitten Beatrice lying in the (now empty) strawberry pannier

Eating locally has brought about significant changes in what we emphasize in the way we’re living. We’re spending more time in the kitchen, cooking together. We’re more creative about what we cook and put more thought into combinations of flavours. Sometimes I think that narrowing your choices actually helps expand your diet–instead of feeling overwhelmed at the literally hundreds of possible answers to “What should we have for dinner?” (which Michael Pollan discusses in The Omnivore’s Dilemma), there is a smaller set of ingredients from which to choose, but all are tasty, fresh, and at their best in their own particular season. I find that rather than concocting local substitutes for old hat dishes I’m perusing my recipe books and the internet for recipes featuring the ingredients I have.

We’ve found our dependence on bread diminishing. For breakfast on a normal day we might have yogurt and stewed rhubarb or rhubarb muffins or on the weekend a feast of hashbrowns, sautéed onions, and scrambled eggs (with oregano). For lunch we’re likely to have salad, or whatever suitable leftovers are taking up space in our fridge. For dinner, we often experiment, although tonight we’re making pizza for the fourth time during our diet –it’s just so darn good. Dessert, which we’re eating more often because berries don’t keep for too long and we keep succumbing to their seduction at the market, is often some combination of berries and whipped cream. (Nat has astonished various friends by happily whipping cream the old fashioned way with a whisk and a bowl. Adding in maple syrup is a delicious variation.)

Fresh greens topped with a mix of cucumber, yogurt, chives, and garlic

Of course it’s not all strawberries and whipped cream. In fact, limiting yourself to a local diet can be very isolating when we’re outside of our apartment. Walking down a main street in Montréal, there used to be dozens of cafés, restaurants, and bars where we could grab a drink or a bite to eat. Now most of these venues are no longer an option, and the ones that are are difficult to find (while awareness of local food issues is increasing, your average waitress is still unlikely to know where all the ingredients in a meal come from).  It makes for a strange sense of isolation walking through streets teeming with people celebrating summer.

One meal we didn't need to adapt: baker potatoes with their insides mixed with garlic, chives and sour cream.

During Montréal’s heat wave this past week I spent an evening with a friend who was hiding from the heat in a café. After some time I thought it best that I buy something. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and every snack and sandwich I could see weren’t local, so I finally settled on steamed milk, which I think was the only thing in the extensive café that would fit this diet. It was worse when Nat and I went to Jazz Fest last weekend. On offer were hot dogs, coffee, Heineken (paraded through the crowd in large trays held aloft by young men), and what appeared to be mangoes on sticks. There was one local option that Nat found on a trip to the SAQ tent: $10 glasses of a Québec ice cider. (We decided this was trop cher for our wallets.)

Another summer salad (with my maple syrup dressing mixed in the cup). We added hard-boiled eggs for protein since we haven't sourced local nuts yet.

But inside our apartment, we’ve been able to foster stronger relationships with friends and a new kind of community surrounding food. We’re inviting our friends to eat with us (instead of going out for a meal or asking them to cook us something local). Friends are impressed by our pizza and by our love of cooking (apparently this wasn’t something all our friends knew about).

To celebrate the half-way point in our month this past Thursday, we had some friends around for a potluck. To make the task less daunting, we made some suggestions of the easiest things (dairy, salad, local veg). The resulting spread was delicious. A couple of friends brought a salad concocted from their basket of produce they receive each week through a CSA program and some bread and Québec cheese. Another friend brought a veggie stirfry. We also invited the addition of random ingredients, and received a bunch of rhubarb, a zucchini, and some garlic scapes. We contributed two pizzas, a spicy zucchini stirfry (it turns out that using two of the chilli peppers I bought at last week’s farmers’ market makes it very hot), apple pie, and little cups of strawberries and maple-syrup-laced whipped cream (Nat laughed at me a little for chilling the dishes first in the freezer, but I think it made it more tasty). Local cider was the drink of choice and by the end of the evening we were all stuffed.

Part of our half-way-point potluck (after the bread and cheese had mostly been consumed and before dessert made its appearance).

Even when we spend time with friends outside of our apartment, we find that even our non-environmentalist friends are increasingly interested in our experiment and don’t give us nearly as many strange looks as I was expecting. We’ve introduced friends to garlic scapes by way of this blog and to rhubarb fool (stewed rhubarb and whipped cream with strawberries on top). We’ve shown that it’s pretty easy to make “normal” foods like pizza. And we continually answer “it’s simple” when asked for recipes. Our meals often include no more than five ingredients (compare that to an average microwaveable meal-in-a-box), but the quality and freshness of the ingredients makes the difference.

Layered rhubarb fool

Of course the noted oases of local food community beyond our apartment are the farmers’ markets. I’ve chatted with a new farmer who apologized for the size of a bag of greens he sold me, and insisted on giving me back 50 cents since he hadn’t had his scales yet when he’d portioned out the bag. I’ve run into fellow students at the market. I’ve had slightly confusing franglais conversations over degustations of local wines. I’ve looked silly by asking a clerk at one of Marché Jean Talon’s fromageries what he has from Québec (“You’re joking, right? Over 75% of it is from Québec”). I’ve bought a sunflower from one vendor and had another comment on how it was in full blossom but still short. On my journeys to and from the market I’ve had conversations with strangers about the best fruit to put in crumble, exchanged greetings with a Portuguese man blaring 70s rock from his minivan (perhaps I made an odd sight with all my bags of produce), and been invited to jam in the park (by a couple who mistook my large bag of vegetables for  a guitar). Of course much of this has to do with the friendliness of Montréal in the summer, but some of it I think comes from the commonality we share with strangers: each day we think about what we want to eat.

The Mile End Marché Fermier (on St Dominique between Laurier and St-Joseph, Thursdays 4:30-8:30pm until October)

I’m starting to feel that a month was an unambitious aim. While we’re using the rising agents and salt we allowed ourselves, from the rest of our spice collection I’ve only used a little cinnamon, herbes de Provence, some nutmeg to flavour a broccoli soup, and a dash or two of pepper. We only have 13 days left, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue enjoying ourselves to the end.

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