It all started with Food, Inc., a movie I had avoided for a long time, in fear of what I would see, and a hasty Twitter proclamation. Now, I have come to the end of the self imposed No Grocery Store for a Year Challenge, and I’ve learned a lot.
I had been shopping at farmer’s markets for years, starting at those probably not organic farm stands along the side of the road in Luling or Lockhart – somewhere between my trips to Corpus to see my parents, years ago. I found them quaint, and loved the idea of supporting local farmers. And, I had been growing food for years as well, although on a much smaller scale. I had already really cut back on fast food, but still was a frequent purchaser of ready made salads, dinners, and the International Food Bar at Whole Foods. I cooked a lot, but if I could get something ready made and heat it up, I was all over it. I had given up sodas a year ago, but was a big consumer of bottled water.
So, when I decided a year ago, that I wanted to see if I could live season to season, without the convenience of a year round variety of food, shipped in from afar and more importantly, commercially raised, feed-lot food animals, I really had little idea what I might miss. I did no preparation for this challenge, I did not stock up on grocery store food. I cleared out all of the meat from my freezer and took it to my parents’ house, and started from scratch. I didn’t clear out the fridge entirely, I just vowed not to eat the condiments I couldn’t bear to throw away. I vowed to try to be a better cook, and a better gardener.
The things I knew I would be without, were avocados, sugar, butter, flour, cornmeal, beans, tortillas, popcorn, cooking oil, parmesan cheese and spices. I was mostly worried about the popcorn, beans, tortillas and avocados, and less concerned about the baking. One thing I was not prepared for, was no milk or cream for my coffee. That was soon rectified by a trip to Boggy Creek Farm, where I found Wateroak Farms goat milk. I had never had goat milk before, and found it tasted no different than cow’s milk. It does not taste like chevre.
So for the first couple months, I ate lots of Kocurek Charcuterie, Richardson Farms beef, and the vegetables that were in season, mostly lettuce from my garden. And in the beginning, I hoarded food, feeling like the days between the two Farmer’s Markets I went to, were long. Saturday to Wednesday, seemed like such a long time to go without shopping, and I was afraid either that I would run out, or just not want what I had. I still hoard farmer’s market goodies, because my favorite local artisans might not make something I want again.
In an effort to have seasonal foods year round, I preserved fruits that were in season by freezing them, so I had tangerine juice when I wanted it, strawberries when I wanted them and peaches. I processed lots of tomatoes and made sauces and purees for freezing.
Fresh tomato sauce
I pickled lemon cucumbers from my garden.
Pickled Lemon Cucumbers
I preserved lemons from my tree.
Early in the year, Richardson Farms started selling Whole Wheat Flour. With some gifted yeast, I made some lovely looking 100% Whole Wheat Bread.
Whole Wheat Bread
It made an interesting BLT when it came out of the oven, but once it cooled off, it took on more of a brick like density. And it weighed a lot.
Around September, the Richardsons started milling their own corn and selling the meal. I went home from the Saturday market and immediately made cornbread.
I learned quickly that this was not much like the cornmeal you get in the store. The batter was so much dryer, I had to adapt the recipe as I went, by adding lots more milk. It was pretty good, but still denser than it should have been.
I made lots of stock. Actually, I became a bit of a stockaholic.
Lots of stock
I made cheese and butter.
And I made rather massive quantities of garden basil pesto, which was made possible by the Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, which came onto the scene in February, and found some local parmesan from Brazos Valley Cheese Company.
Garden Basil Pesto
John and Kendall fall into two important categories of my year long challenge. 1) All the new food that came on the scene in 2010 and 2) Help I had from friends.
Catagory No. 1) Looking back on the food that was available from Farmer’s Markets early in the year, and the emergence of so much new locally made and sourced food now, the change is amazing. Kocurek Family Artisinal Charcuterie was still new to the farmer’s market scene, having launch in October of 2009. Since then, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop opened, and introduced me to Brazos Valley Cheese, Sand Creek Farm Cheese, Veldhuizen Cheese, Blue Heron Farms Cajeta and they also provided a variety of Pure Luck Farms cheeses which I couldn’t get other than from the dairy directly or a grocery store.
Also new to the food scene, Salt and Time, which launched a line of cured meats, and pickled vegetables, and has now evolved into cooking hot food at HOPE Farmer’s Market. Another new revelation this year, Barrie Cullinan, whose bread is available at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop as well as Boggy Creek Farm. Barrie was just named one of the top 10 bakers in the country by Bon Appetite Magazine.
At some point, Dai Due Butcher Shop expanded into selling hot food at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown, a privilege which was then taken away by the City/County powers that be, then thankfully returned.
Confituras, the local preserve company that is taking Austin by storm, launched just 4 months ago. Stephanie is going like gangbusters, making some of the tastiest and local preserves I’ve ever had.
And last but certainly not least, Bola Pizza has since launched at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown, bringing the amazing wood fired pizza I’ve been privileged to get to have throughout the year, to the masses.
Con Olio, a newish store launched in the Arborteum just over a year ago, and Savory Spice Shop on Sixth Street is another new local food store which made my challenge easier.
The number of vendors at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown has easily doubled throughout the year, and the variety of food has expanded exponentially. More farmer’s markets have popped up, some came and went. The volume of food has increased as well, which speaks to the demand for locally grown food.
Category No. 2) Help from Friends. The Antonelli’s opened their shop in February, having met me in October at a launch party for the Kocureks. I met them again at Pure Luck Farm for a Farm Tour, and we became friends. They knew of my no local parmesan dilemma, and upon opening day, pronounced that they had procured some local parmesan for me. I was amazed that they would think of me, in the midst of their changing careers and opening the cheese shop. Likewise, my friend Kristi shared an avocado with me, from her local CSA Box, and brought black and pinto beans, and popcorn back from her travels and visits to other farmer’s markets. Kristi also was the provider of the yeast I used this year. Christian was the source for Topo Chico, and set-ups for some of the parties I had this year, and I believe he fronted me an avocado as well. My friend Adam, took it upon himself to find me local flour, and enlisted his friend Vance Ely, to help. They found and procured some flour from Waco, which lightened up my baking quite a bit. (Vance is a chef for Central Market Cooking School, an irony that is not lost on me.) Several readers of this blog offered advice on baking with 100% whole wheat flour, even testing recipes for me. So, I have had lots of help along the way throughout the last year.
As far as becoming a better gardener, I think I grew a wider variety of foods than ever before, and also became a better garden planner, thus making my garden more productive. I grew lemon cucumbers, royal burgundy beans, my first and second ever watermelon.
I had potato grow bag failures, but later had tater success in the garden.
And, to my excitement, I grew corn!
I became a better gardener, and a better composter as well.
An unintended consequence of this challenge was the amazing drop in the amount of trash I generated. My food did not come in packages, no boxes, no cartons, just returnable egg crates and shrink wrap. I cut the amount of trash I generated to at least one fifth, perhaps lots more.
It was a fun year. I could recap all the shennagins I got into, but then we’d be here on this one post forever, and I’m sure you have other things to do but read. To recap, we had an all local paella party, a whole pig roast, a blogger potluck baby shower, a Tamalada, and I went to Farm Camp. The entire month of September was declared “Birthday Month” and much fun ensued.
Throughout this year, I became a better cook, a better gardener, and a better citizen of the Earth, I think. I made a lot of really good friends, ate some amazing local food, and had a great year all around. And it’s all on here somewhere. As it will continue to be. I’m going nowhere, and have no plans to return to my grocery store shopping ways. I have a greater connection to my food now, and the folks that grow it, raise it, and care for it, and I think that is amazing.
The most wonderful thing that happened this year, is that I got to see several good friends, launch into their dream jobs, and I’ve enjoyed seeing them succeed more than I can say.
Happy New Year!