What we learned is that we can eat pretty well on what grows within five miles of our house, but as the realtors intone, it has everything to do with location, location, location. We knew, but were reminded of, how very lucky we are to live in our particular location. Even with all of the headaches of living in suburbia and all of lack of and challenges that come with living on such a small piece of land, every time we look for a larger homestead, something reminds us that our location is perfect, even if our homestead is not.
We are lucky to live near some farms that supplied a lot of the food we ate during the month, and that, in truth, we eat most of the time. Milk, meat, and vegetables are all available at these farms, and while the selections were limited to a few vegetables (zucchini, corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes), there was always plenty of food.
Being gluten-free (per Deus Ex Machina's doctor's recommendations back in April) made things easier, because, at least for the first part of the transition, we opted not to replace wheat-based products with their gluten-free grocery store options. That is, we decided not to switch to gluten-free bread or rice pasta like most people do. Instead, we just avoided breads and pasta, and the like, and so during the month of August, we weren't Jonesing for a big sandwich, because we hadn't been eating those kinds of foods anyway. It made the challenge easier.
We did cheat a couple of times and have some take-out, but for the month of August, if we say that we ate 60 meals (two meals per day for the month), only 5% of those meals were not food grown within five miles of our house. It's not perfect, but it's not horrible, either.
We continued Foraging Sundays during the five-mile challenge, and we were always successful at limiting our meals to what we could forage. We've decided that it was easier to stick to the foraging challenge, because it was only one day each week, and we figured we could get through just one day, but for the whole month, on days when we were just too busy to cook at home, we had a hard time sticking to the five-mile limit.
An important lesson was that if we had no other choice, we could eat well enough on what grows within five miles of our house, but the fact that we do have other choices - a LOT of other choices - hit home pretty hard during the month. It's just too easy, in our culture, to pick-up something while we're out. Eating became a very thoughtful exercise. I even found myself obsessing over food, at least in the beginning, always trying to figure out what I was allowed to eat and dreaming of what I would prepare for Deus Ex Machina and I for dinner.
The other difficulty was that we didn't require that our daughters participate in the challenge, and so I found that I was cooking one thing for them, and something different for Deus Ex Machina and me on some nights. It's not different than we eat anyway, because Deus Ex Machina and I are gluten-free and our daughters are not, and so, sometimes, I fix them something that we won't eat, and so I have to prepare something different for us. During the challenge, though, sometimes the food they ate would be things we could have eaten, but couldn't have, because it wasn't local.
We also have a pretty well-stocked pantry, and some of the food - okay, a lot of the food - is not from within five miles of our house. Strawberries from the PYO farm, buckwheat flour grown in Maine, Maine-grown beans, local artisan cheeses, ice cream - all local stuff, by most definitions, but not within five miles and so out of the diet for the month.
I won't lie, I'm glad it's over, and I'm not sure that it really accomplished anything - at least for me (Deus Ex Machina lost weight over the summer - either from not eating as much food in general, particularly on Sundays; from getting more exercise while he was out foraging; or from eliminating gluten ... or all of the above. He lost weight, but I found it, but I didn't eat much before the challenge, I'm not sure gluten is an issue for me, and I didn't do much foraging, because I usually stayed home to work). We didn't stay within the five miles on several of the days, because it was just too much of a bother. We have very busy lives, typical of the kind of environment in which we live, and we are, now, hyper aware of how much the modern culture forces us away from concentrating on food to fixating on things that, in the greater scheme of things, have absolutely no bearing on our survival as a species.
I'm not going to say that the five-mile challenge was a waste, but I think we learned a lot more on Foraging Sundays, and it also reinforced some things we knew, but didn't think enough about.
We've been hearing (and repeating) that hunter-gatherers only have to work for three hours a day finding food. That may be true, but our mistaken assumption has been that hunter-gatherers work for three hours per day filling their bellies and then, languish around for the rest of the day weaving baskets and creating cave paintings. While it may be true that hunter-gatherers didn't toil in the same way agrarian cultures do, to assume that they don't work is inaccurate.
There are two parts to eating wild foods. The first part is finding it. The second part, the hardest part, is preparing it so that it could be eaten.
We, truly, do live in a fast-food culture, and it's not just the proliferation of restaurants, like McDonalds, where a meal can be purchased and consumed in less time than it took for Gilligan and the Skipper to have their weekly adventure with the rest of the Castaways. Every bit of our culture is designed so that food is quick and easy and done, and then, we have more time to do stuff that doesn't matter.
Early in the challenge, it was easy to gather enough greens for salad in about fifteen minutes, and Deus Ex Machina could go out and bring back the ingredients for a nice, spring soup during a half hour walk. The whole meal process was pretty much what we knew from the kind of life we lead as suburbanites. Those were the good days.
What we knew, but didn't think enough about is that as the season progresses the landscape changes. It's not like grocery store grazing, where any ingredient one could possibly want for any meal (with very few exceptions - like fresh cherries which are only available for a short period in the late spring) is readily available all of the time (salad in winter? You bet! Where's the dressing?).
In the real world, not the one made up for our modern enjoyment, plants don't grow that way. That everything has a season is not just a song by The Byrds (or an Ecclesiastes). We knew it, but when depending on what we could find and having such a limited knowledge, the transitive properties of plants hit home, pretty hard, more than once. After the first weekend, we hit our groove, and we were having some delicious soups and wild greens, and then, the plantain was stringy, and the dandelions were bitter, and the Japanese knotweed was too big ... and we were wandering around wondering what to eat.
The most profound discovery was how important our stored foods would be. Over the years that we've been foraging, we've always made a point to save some of the food for later. So, we had blackberry jam, which we ate as a side dish with sautéed greens. One weekend I found the last of the Hen of the Woods Deus Ex Machina had foraged the previous summer tucked back in the freezer behind some chicken parts. We had sautéed mushrooms to accompany the steamed Periwinkles. It was one of the fanciest meals we'd ever eaten.
Gifts from friends also played a huge role. Deus Ex Machina harvested the above mentioned periwinkles with a friend, who had become interested in our project, and even gave us a Striper he'd caught. It was one of the best meals we had during our project. The plum wine was made with foraged plums another friend had given us the year before. Fish that friends had caught ended up in several meals. We were really grateful to those friends who supported us in our efforts to eat only foraged foods.
We also expanded our palates and knowledge during the challenge. In particular, Deus Ex Machina learned to identify and harvest several different mushrooms, including: Reishi (which is really a polypore and not a mushroom per se), chanterelles and black trumpets. He also noted that, contrary to what we had come to believe, mushrooms are not just a fall treat. Chanterelles grow through much of our summer. One just has to know where to look to find them.
Much to the disgust of some of our acquaintances, road kill ended up on our plate, and braised groundhog is absolutely delicious. If I had to say what it tasted like, I'd say it's like duck - a dark, very greasy meat. I was surprised at how greasy it was, but it was very tasty, and while I wouldn't go out of my way to kill a groundhog, I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, either. We had groundhog for two Sunday meals and one weekday meal (as a mock-chipped beef gravy over mashed potatoes), and Deus Ex Machina took groundhog leftovers to work for two days. One groundhog fed two people the equivalent of three meals, each.
If I had to condense the experience into bullet points, I'd say:
- It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.
- Being a local, seasonal eater requires a commitment to food preservation.
- The whole experience reinforced and strengthened our commitment to localizing our diet.
We are going to continue to forage and to harvest from our garden and to patronize the local farms. We are going to continue to reduce our dependence on the grocery store. We are going to continue to explore new ways to preserve food.
And we're more committed, than ever, to accepting the bounty nature provides.