Cracking the Eat Local Code

Patrick posted some of his end o’ ELC thoughts a while back, but I’ve been stewing on mine for a while.

I had surprisingly mixed feelings at the outset of the challenge, after my initial burst of “right on!” when Patrick mentioned the idea. I tend to be a bit compulsive, and until I relaxed and let myself have spices from who knows where, and olive oil from California, I was feeling a bit caged. I think this is in no small part because we are still finding our place in our new city.

I’m reading the final section of Pollan’s book, and have been thinking so much about the role of culture and tradition in our foodways. (If you haven’t already, please, please read this book. It’s important.) The “omnivore’s dilemma” of the title is a powerful tool for thinking about the chaos of American food systems in the 21st century, and for understanding the importance of re-visioning how we eat. The dilemma (apologies for my crude condensation) is that, compared to most animals, humans as omnivores can eat almost anything. But everything isn’t necessarily good for us, and some of it is deadly. Over the course of our evolution—much of which has been cultural—we have developed traditions and cuisines that provided us as individuals with rules to eat by, to reduce the stress and risk of choosing from what is available. Each culture has admitted and forbidden different things, but for much of time, most cultures have come up with pretty balanced, relatively healthy diets. But in America, and especially in the industrial age of food, what little tradition our polyglot nation has had has pretty much been blown out of the water, and we have been sent back to the dawn of time, in terms of how and what to eat. Each individual is forced to decide, from a dizzying array of choices, what is good and safe and right to eat. And we’re not doing so well, if you measure by overall health and happiness.

The ELC is clearly engaged in the issues Pollan raises, seeking to shift food culture in America, bring it back home, as it were. But at the same time, as was revealed by many shouts of frustration by participants over the course of the challenge, the ELC itself threw people’s customary foodways into upheaval.

I think many, if not most, of the participants had localness as a significant part of their food decision-tree even before they started. But given that the local food economy is still much more vision than reality, all of us also have more or less of our diets flown in, processed, etc. as part of the reigning industrial (organic or otherwise) food system. So eating as close to local as possible meant for each of us some measure of divergence from our local—read household—food customs.

In our household that felt a little extra jarring, Ithink, since we are still in the process of feeling at home in our new kitchen, house, and city. So any time some familiar recipe came to mind for dinner and then wasn’t possible because of eat-local, the pang was a little greater than it normally would have been.

At the same time, the ELC gave us some extra incentive to push farther on a commitment already made—to get to know our local producers, growers, and vendors.

I think it’s Joel Salatin, a grass farmer whom Pollan profiles in-depth, who notes the strangeness of the fact that people buy food—the very stuff that keeps us alive—so anonymously, without looking the person who grew it in the eye. We (unconsciously?) count on the USDA, or the grocery buyer, or the crisp, pretty design on the box to guaruntee our food’s goodness/healthfulness/safeness. It really makes you stop when you read that. How crazy is that?

But we live in a time and place where looking each other in the eye has become a pretty rare experience. So it turned out that even more than the food, it has been the conversations sparked, when we asked questions of these good people who grow and bring to market our food, that were the greatest gift of this challenge. Last Wednesday afternoon, at the Moreland Farmer’s Market, Patrick and I stood in front of a table and had a conversation with the woman who butchered the ducks we were buying. Human beings, conversing about their work, their food, their days. It seems so small, but it is a such a privelege . . . I can barely find the words to communicate the way that such interactions touch me. They feel like sacred acts—acts of humanness in a world way too mediated by technology. (Perhaps particularly so when the person is telling a hilarious story of smashing a twelve-year-old fax machine to bits on her driveway after one too many glitches. Office Space meets the Oregon countryside.) And what we think of her ducks matters to her. It matters to her because it will mean that we will buy more meat and eggs from her, but it also undoubtedly matters to her because she has seen us too.

These sorts of experiences both warmed me up to the challenge, and, even better, helped me feel more at home all the time. So, by the end of May, eating local was starting to feel like my culture.

During the last week of the challenge, I made my very first attempt at baking crackers. Crackers have long been one of those processed food items that give us grief. We’re hopeless cheese fanatics, and have high cracker standards as a result. Our long-term favorite cracker had been Red Oval Farms’ Stoned Wheat Thins. Just the right crispness, very slight sweetness, nice texture from the cracked wheat, hold up to spreading, don’t break into a zillion pieces when you bite into them. Ahh, the wonder of their craquelins de blé. sigh. But, they are not local, they’re Canadian (nothing against Canada, I love Canada), and far more dire—they are owned by KRAFT! (Check out the “message from our lawyers” on the bottom of the Red Oval page. How creepy is that? I hope I don’t get in trouble for linking to it . . .) I’m fairly certain that they haven’t always been. Like most “brands” they probably started as a product made by someone who cared about it.

Anyway, over the past few years, as we’ve transitioned away from industrially produced foods, we would try replacement cracker after replacement cracker—to no avail. Then, a couple years ago, on Andrew Weil’s good advice, we took the step of excising trans-fats, which our beloved craquelines depend upon. Biting the bullet, we broke it off, and settled for a while on a Whole Foods 365-line imitation, which doesn’t have hydrogenated oils, and isn’t half bad. You can tell what the hydrogenated oils do for the cracker, though, especially in terms of its ability to hold up after a bite. But, we all have our crosses to bear.

Then we moved to PDX, and stopped going to Whole Foods. We were cast again upon the seas of unknown crackers. We finally found quite a respectable little cracker, made by a smaller company, Late July. It was started by the daughter of the man who founded Cape Cod Potato Chips (Cape Cod is now part of a big scary snack conglomerate) with his help. Their round saltines are our cracker of choice, and they cost a ridiculous amount of money, but they’re good. But not local.

So comes the ELC and we are again cracker-less. Damn! And here we were finding so many good cheeses in our food-shed (More all the time. At Wednesday’s market, we met a new-to-us producer, Black Sheep Creamery, out of Adna Washington, 90 miles north. We bought a sharp and sheepy-feta, and a delicate almost-blue at a discount, since it didn’t get to where they wanted it to. We also got a pecorino, which was exciting, since local aged cheeses are in short supply. It’s not quite there yet—it lacks the depth and sweetness I look for, but I’m psyched they’re trying.)

For most of the month we ate cheese on bread, and I would flip through my King Arthur’s and Deb Madison looking at cracker recipes and think, gee, those don’t look so hard to make . . . and then put them back on the shelf. But finally, as the ELC was drawing to a close, I thought, enough dithering, this is it—make some bloody crackers. And I did. And it was easy, and fun, even. I used my King Arthur (I love this book, heavy on methodology, and very middle-America which speaks to my roots), and made a water cracker, from their base recipe, and a crazy cheese-nip wanna be.

The cheese coin, as they call it, is one of those things that makes you wonder why the heck so many artificial stuff is in our foods, when you can make the same thing with actual food in it. Of course, you couldn’t put the miles or shelf-life on my version. But man, they were good. My mom was visiting shortly after I’d made them and found them sinful. But the plain cracker was the big deal. It was crisp and tasty, with plenty of room for exploration and refinement, but great for cheese right off the blocks. I can now make my own crackers, with locally-grown wheat flour, and butter from locally raised and grass-fed cows. Butter, flour, water. That’s the whole ingredient list. Oh, and salt. The ones pictured below are a second try, and I used whey left over from when Patrick made panir last week. The whey added a lovely tenderness and richness.

crackers

So now the challenge is over, officially. But unofficially, I, like so many others, am really just getting started. This is so important, for so many reasons, and the folks who participated have done an amazing job of talking about all of them. I am so thankful to have been a part of this community and this experience. Here’s a cracker-y toast to ourselves, our foodsheds, and the health and well-being of both.

This is a cross post with the ELC blog.

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5 Responses to Cracking the Eat Local Code

  1. arif says:

    mmmmm, you’ve inspired me to dive back into cracker making, or at least trying to make crackers. My first attempt was a failure, maybe because there was a 2 year old rolling out the dough with me and we paid less attention than we should have. Do you have a recipe you can share?

  2. Holly says:

    Here’s the short version of the King Arthur basic recipe. I’d highly recommend the book for more re: technique. I’m putting the quantities I used, but the fat and the liquid can vary to your preference. More fat, less liquid. The liquid can be water or whey or milk—apparently even beer or wine would work! You can also add seeds to jazz things up.

    Preheat oven to 350°

    2c (10oz) white flour
    5T butter
    7–8oz water/whey
    salt for tops

    Using a pastry cutter, blend the butter into the flour until it has a small even crumb. Add the liquid and blend until the dough forms a rough ball. You may need to pull the last bits together with your hands. Roll out the dough with a heavy rolling pin and a firm hand. They say the less working the dough gets, the more tender shall be the cracker. You want 1/8–1/16 inch thick. Very thin. Then salt the top, and use a fork to prick the surface of the dough. Cut into approximately 2 inch (or whatever the heck shape you want!) squares with a pizza cutter. Lay out the crackers on parchment paper on a cookie sheet and bake for about 25 minutes. They should be just beginning to brown when you take them out. I get about 2 cookie sheets worth—they don’t spread much, so they can be fairly close on the sheets. Since I’m using two racks in the oven, I rotate them about midway through. Remove the crackers to racks to cool—they crisp up as they cool.

    Enjoy!

  3. Scout says:

    Congratulations on your ELC achievement, Holly! It’s hard to imagine a desperate search for crackers, as I’m one of those weirdos who can take or leave things like chips, crackers, and popcorn.

    I am, however, insanely addicted to sugar in all and every form, and I try in vain to limit my sweets. One compromise I do make, though, is to remember that I used to be a pastry chef, and that I can make anything better than I can buy it. It seems so Leave it to Beaver to make a cake, then have it sitting under a dome at home, but if I’m going to eat dessert, I’d at least rather that I’m the one who made it. I usually have a slice or two of whatever I concocted, then bring the rest in to work. Just the other day, one of my co-workers at the theater asked, “You don’t happen to have any cake on you, do you?”

    Uhm, no, sorry.

    I bring this all up because it strikes me as such a small step, which makes such a big difference. In addition to me eating very slightly less crap, I’m also feeding my friends, who might be eating less junk as a result. Also, it starts the discussion on how or what I made, and I never get tired of talking about food or cooking techniques. It’s like making a very small community, based entirely upon cake, and that’s a world I can get behind.

    Also– and this may be stretching it– I read once that kids who eat breakfast consume more calories in a day than kids who skip the meal, but are much less likely to be overweight. It seems that by going back to the time when dessert was a big production, and everybody shared it, we’re less likely to take it for granted and to add sugar to everything we eat. The sugar in homemade cake or real oven-fresh chocolate chip cookies always seems so much more powerful than the stuff purchased in the stores, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s all the additives, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of having done something myself.

    Either way, that’s not the point. I get rambly when I try my hardest to be brief, and I just wanted to say congratulations, and I applaud your efforts. It’s inspirational to know that you live in the same town, and I’m glad you and Patrick picked Portland for your home.

  4. Holly says:

    There must be something about Portland and cake. We have had some of the best cake I have ever had here.

    I think it is totally true that cake—anything, really, but cake in this instance—made by hand and eaten with ritual is incredibly good for us. Good individually, but more importantly, good collectively. Pollan talks about the loss of ritual in food preparation and food eating as one of the many ways that the fabric of our culture has been torn. And it is arguably in large part because of a loss of food culture that food has become unhealthy in America.

    So, yes, let us eat homemade cake, together.

    And gosh, it sure is good to be here in Portland!

  5. Pingback: One Local Summer « From a Pocket Farm Kitchen

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