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Where This All Started… And Where It Could Start For You July 19, 2010

Posted by maggieknight in Resources, Une diète pour La Belle Province.

Recently people have been asking me where I got my love of food and cooking in general and my interest in sustainable food systems in particular. They also ask what the best ways to learn more are. So here you go, a short summary of where this all started (for me) and where you could look to get into this sustainable food feast yourself.

I have to attribute much of my love of food and cooking to my mum. An accomplished cook who, as a single parent, consistently produced delicious and nutritious dishes, my mum loves to create tasty meals and to enjoy them with friends and neighbours. While I didn’t cook much in her kitchen before I left home, I learned from her that cooking doesn’t have to be done by the recipe, that the kitchen should be a space of creativity and experimentation, and that community is best enjoyed over a good meal.  When I left home, my mum’s going-away present to me was a handwritten cookbook of many of my favourite recipes, complete with humorous cartoons, witticisms, and inside jokes. While I already knew the essentials of cooking, this book guided me through my first months of university cooking (happily explored in collaboration with my floormates in our MORE House) and remains the source of many of my favourite staples.

I wasn’t much of a gardener in my teens (to the chagrin of both my mother and my stepmom, I believe), but I appreciated the fresh produce that came out of the gardens and spent time with West Coast foodies who dedicated their time to community gardens and local feasts. During my first year at McGill, I bought Nat The 100-Mile Diet for Christmas (I confess to having read several chapters before wrapping it up–with the book opened to the least extent possible to avoid cracking the spine, of course ). I borrowed it back from Nat a while later once he’d read it. While the book didn’t teach me too much that I didn’t already know about food in terms of facts and figures, its lyrical style made me fall in love with falling in love with my food–and it spoke of the landscapes I’d grown up in and was isolated from across the continent in the full glory of the true Canadian winter.

While Nat had his own apartment, he spent more and more time at my rez, cooking with us and baking us bread (and making us cookies when we had midterms!). When we (and a roommate) officially moved in together in my second year, cooking became an even bigger part of what we did together and part of the way we cared for one another. Our basement apartment didn’t provide enough sunlight to grow plants, but we shopped at the McGill Farmers’ Market and at Organic Campus, and tried to get to Marché Jean Talon now and then. Through Greening McGill, I learned more about sustainable farming and local initiatives (and hosted a screening of “The World According to Monsanto” in our apartment), watched fellow students attempt a McGill 100-Mile Diet in November, and helped as Environment Commissioner of the Students’ Society of McGill University with the founding of the McGill Food Systems Project.

Last Fall, while in McGill’s Environmental Management 1 class, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which had been given to me as a farewell gift by my colleague at the Habitat Acquisition Trust at the end of the summer, and which I had been meaning to properly read for ages). Our Environmental Management group project worked with the McGill Food Systems Project to look at the challenges and opportunities of institutionalizing sustainable purchasing practices into McGill’s food system. In our final report (which you can read here), we recommended the hiring of an additional staff person to manage the amount of information necessary to make sustainable choices in institution purchasing. Thanks to funding through McGill’s new Sustainability Projects Fund and the dedication of several McGill students and staff, this position is now in the hiring phase (if you’re interested, check out the job description here–applications are due July 21st).

Since then, I’ve also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which again made the case for local eating in an engaging and personal fashion. She charmingly discusses the joys of hunting for morels (mushrooms) in the forest, the epic endeavour of never-ending tomato canning, and even turkey sex (her heirloom breeds of turkey could actually reproduce by themselves, unlike the species that makes up most of the turkey meat market). While I haven’t read it yet, I’ll soon be diving into Sarah Elton’s Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields To Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat (you can see her opinions on locavorism without giving up on trade goods like spices here).

For folks looking for more resources on local food and the importance of genetic diversity in our food crops, I’d recommend the various writings of Vandana Shiva and the publications of the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. For shock value there’s also Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s documentary “Supersize Me” (which you can view for free here). While I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, “Food Inc” is also changing people’s minds about how they eat. Slow Food International (and Slow Food Canada) lay out the case for an aesthetic appreciation of our daily nourishment. Food Secure Canada works on food security issues across the country.

If you’re in Québec, the NGO Équiterre provides a lot of information on how to eat locally (and direct links to get involved with Community Supported Agriculture). If you’d rather take in some info while going for a run or cleaning up the house, check out the recent podcasts from CBC’s Ideas (they recently had a three-part series entitled “Have Your Meat and Eat It Too”, which included the staggering statistic that if all the “externalities” (of environmental degradation, worker health, and so on) were internalized into the cost of a 49-cent McDonald’s hamburger it would instead cost more than $200) and CBC’s The Bottom Line show on soil, in which David Suzuki interviews various farmers, including the “lunatic grass farmer” Joel Salatin who was visited by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Of course there are also dozens (probably hundreds) of websites and blogs about local eating, of which this, for the moment at least, is of course one.

The last piece of advice I would give for folks interested in exploring the ethics and impacts of how they eat would be to find like-minded people to share in new culinary adventures. Local eating can be daunting at first and if you’re surrounded by people who get their food out of boxes and cans it can be difficult to maintain any willpower to explore new recipes. Find a friend to go on a date with you to the farmers’ market (entice him or her with promises that there will be tastings of local wines, if necessary) and make a challenge of making a meal out of whatever you can find there. It’s summer–what could be better than an afternoon at the market followed by a long evening of culinary companionship, laughing and eating and sipping local wine?



1. Tammy McLeod - July 19, 2010

Great job documenting how you got to where you are. My own journey started in a similar fashion and my first book was Gary Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat. I’ve never looked back and am inspired when I see others like yourself embracing local food and provided great resources for others.

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