The conventional wisdom is that it costs more to buy locally grown produce and other foods than the conventional stuff in the grocery stores. Some locavore enthusiasts have countered by pointing out that Americans spend less on food than other developed countries. They also say if we really want quality, we have to learn to pay a little more. But that’s easy for them to say. For those of us struggling with our budgets, it’s not so easy.
But it is possible to eat more locally grown food and not pay through the nose for it. Ask yourself this question: what did people eat before there were grocery stores? Not only did they raise much of their own food, they also ate from the food already around them. Mushrooms, nettles, greens and so on are often growing nearby. Here’s the experience of teacher Felisha Rogers:
“My husband and I were both laid off in October of 2008, and while we’ve worked on and off since then, we’ve keenly felt the economic crunch. For the past three years, our lives have been an exercise in reduction. First we stopped eating out, then we stopped buying specialty items, then we found ourselves unable to afford items that had once seemed basic: peanut butter, bacon, grapes in February.”
She found there were edible plants. Grocery shopping had become stressful. Foraging in the thickets was fun.
“In November I dressed up our simple dinners with chanterelles, in December and January most of our meals contained hedgehog mushrooms or yellow-footed chanterelles, in early spring we met our food pyramid vegetable requirements with miner’s lettuce, dandelion greens, cat’s-ear and nettles. I realized we were eating a mostly local, seasonal diet when the end of nettle season left me at a loss.”
But she began thinking it was time to get creative. This is what many frontier cooks did. They used monotonous ingredients available in darker seasons and ended up with a world of flavor.
“Eating seasonally has forced me to be creative, and I’m a better cook for it. Despite the monotony of available ingredients, we don’t suffer from a monotonous diet. This year we’ve eaten the gamut of global cuisine: curries, stir fries, pastas, pot pies, quiches, frittatas, tacos, barbecue, bisques, stews and fritters. We have the luxury of purchasing some supplies from afar (such as flour, rice, cheese and dried fruit), so I can’t make the pompous claim that our diet is 100 percent local or seasonal. That said, it’s been interesting to experience a life where the meal’s showpiece ingredients are generally dictated by the weather, the time of year or dumb luck.”
Naturally, we can’t all do this. But I think we often limit our thinking about food based on what we experienced in a shrink-wrapped world. Before grocery stores were just a short drive away, people grew much of their own food and bought things that were growing in season. What they couldn’t eat, they preserved in some way. They survived.
As hard as things are these days, it may help to remember that life was much harder only a few generations ago. While many things in life have changed, nature still thrives all around us. And nature is full of food for one creature or another. So, take a closer look at those weeds beside the road. You might find something good to eat.