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B.A. Nilsson

Think Globally, Eat Locally

The 100-mile challenge reminds us why it’s a good idea to look for food raised closer to home

By B.A. Nilsson

Could there be a more compelling reason to take the 100-Mile Diet Challenge than the current e. coli spinach scare? Forget about enjoying quiche Lorraine this week—the green stuff has been yanked off the shelves.

And this forces us to confront the fact that we don’t know where our food originates, a situation that would have been laughably unthinkable a few decades ago. By turning over food production to a handful of corporate entities, we reap low pricing and year-round availability of our favorite items. But the quiet payback has been that the stuff isn’t necessarily good for us.

The 100-Mile Diet Challenge asks you to source your food products from within a radius of your home that, with Metroland’s offices as the center, reaches west nearly to Binghamton and Syracuse and east beyond Worcester, Mass., and is bounded top and bottom by Elizabethtown and Bear Mountain. A pretty hefty, not to say fertile, swath of real estate. We’re lucky to be where we are.

Which is one of the reasons that I thought I’d like to try this challenge. I live in farm country—co-opted, it’s true, by mammoth dairy operations—where rumbles of sustainability are sounding more and more.

But I shared the first realization that hits most of Diet Challenge takers: None of the area farms grows coffee. And you won’t find a fresh banana in the bunch. This also means no—what? Coconuts. Mangoes. Australian Shiraz.

So why bother doing this? The immediate reason is personal health, which we’ll get back to. But how about the fight against global warming? “Most Americans think the best thing they can do,” writes Peter Singer, author of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, “is to swap their family car for a fuel-efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius.” Ouch. We just did that. Quoting a University of Chicago study, Singer continues, “Typical meat-eating Americans would reduce their emissions even more if they switched to a vegan diet. Factory farming is not sustainable.”

“It’s a matter of peak oil,” says Cheryl Nechamen, who spearheaded the local 100-Mile Diet initiative (www.100milechallenge.com). As director of a group called Capital District Energy Action, she’s spreading the word about the end of cheap oil, which will occur once the world’s oil resources are fully tapped and begin their slow decline—something that could happen as soon as 10 years from now.

“Our current agricultural system uses a tremendous amount of oil to give us cheap, factory-farmed food,” she says, “and we take those low prices for granted. But they won’t always stay that low. So we decided to focus on food and bring this diet initiative to the area.”

The initiative began in Vancouver in March 2005, when writers Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon looked at the fact that most of the food ingredients North Americans consume have traveled at least 1,500 miles. As they note on their Web site (www.100milediet.org), “We walked into the diet cold-turkey for a full year, and it was hard. For example, we live on the West Coast, so it took us seven months to find a rogue local farmer who actually grows wheat. Meanwhile, we ate an unbelievable number of potatoes.” They go on to suggest that a more realistic approach “is to plan a single, totally 100-mile meal with friends or family, and see where you want to go from there.” Although they’re still pursuing the diet, they have relaxed enough to welcome old favorites back into the larder. “Like olives. And chocolate. And beer.”

There’s a parallel movement that began last year in San Francisco, described at the Web site locavores.com, which intruded into the public eye three months ago in a Time magazine article. (Once you enter this cross-linked network of Web sites, you will be inundated with info.)

The local website (100milechallenge.com) sports a long list of local sources, many of which sell their products through Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op, which also is supporting the 100-mile idea with a brochure that lists what’s suitably local.

“We can’t print enough of them,” says the co-op’s education coordinator, Karisa Centanni. “There’s been a lot of buzz around here. People are making it known that they’re using our store for the diet.”

She’s also working on a program to reflect a product’s source right on the store-affixed label. Some of it is wholly local; some of it is processed locally. If you can’t give up your beans, you’ll find a local supplier of long- distance legumes.

It’s a diet concept that survives being sliced and diced. If nothing else, you’re already thinking about it. Chances are you’re thinking of some of the fresh produce you enjoyed recently and you’re contemplating making a bigger commitment to that good stuff.

Now that my family has sampled grass-fed beef and pork and naturally raised chickens, we won’t be buying meat from the supermarkets again. We’ll eat meat far less often, but what we do eat will taste spectacularly better.

Otherwise, we’re entrusting our health to corporations only interested in profits, corporations that need to overcome the fact that humans can eat only so much at a given time. Michael Pollan’s recent, troubling study of this, a book titled The Omnivore’s Dilemma, traces the rise of the corporate reinvention of our food, an example of which is a company called TreeTop, which developed a “low-moisture, naturally sweetened apple piece infused with a red-wine extract” that purports to provide cancer-fighting “flavonoid phenols.” This news came from a Food Technology magazine piece titled “Getting More Fruits and Vegetables Into Food.”

“I had thought,” writes Pollan, “that fruits and vegetables were already foods, and so didn’t need to be gotten into them, but I guess that just shows I’m stuck in the food past.” He concludes, “The food industry had gazed upon nature and found it wanting—and has gotten to work improving it.”

For a profit, of course. Since the corporate-besotted Reagan era, health and safety regulations for factory farms have been eviscerated, bringing with it the problems of e.coli-infected beef (try to find a medium-rare burger in a chain restaurant) and, lately, spinach.

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is the bug in question, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “lives in the intestines of healthy cattle,” a euphemism for the fact that most cattle in the U.S. are crowded into shit-ridden pens on factory farms, with excrement matted into their hides—excrement that easily can infect the meat as it’s processed, despite the cornucopia of hormones and antibiotics injected into our food. The latest wacky, frightening FDA proposal is to spray a cocktail of six viruses onto selected meatstuffs to kill the Listeria bacterium.

Unless a truly radical shift takes place in Congress, there will be no legislation to change this. Fortunately, we can vote with our feet—and the trip need take us no more than a hundred miles from home. More and more small farms are dotting the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys and the Berkshires, and you can arrange to receive a steady shipment of comestibles by buying shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. For a regular fee, which might include some work hours, you’ll receive produce right after it’s picked; some farms also include meat in the package. Check out www.nal.usda.gov/ afsic/csa/ to find CSAs near you.

In addition to co-ops like Honest Weight and the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, independent markets like Guido’s (Pittsfield and Great Barrington) and the shop at Indian Ladder Farms emphasize locally sourced items. And there’s the wide range of farmer’s markets (Troy’s being one of the best) that continue for much if not all of the year. The Regional Farm and Food Project maintains a list of them on its Web site at www.farmandfood.org/directory/farmersmarkets.html.

With more consumers looking for local food, many of the area’s hipper restaurants are emphasizing their product sources. Saratoga’s Beekman Street Bistro develops its menu around what’s available day by day, and you’ll find the local purveyors listed on a separate menu page at Chez Sophie. Those of us looking to eat locally may well prove to be in the forefront of a movement that might well evolve into a phenomenon of daily life—a radically new, yet very old-fashioned concept.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chef André Begnaud, who served as executive sous chef at two of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, will cater the Ninth Annual Music Haven Community Gala celebration in Schenectady’s Central Park from 5:30 to 7:15 PM on Monday (Aug. 28). The menu includes smoked brisket, barbecued chicken, green beans with pecans, corn maque choux, Cajun/Creole potato salad, Louisiana slaw, and dessert beignets. The Gala marks the last concert of the summer series, which features zydeco master Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie on the Music Haven stage at 7:30 PM. The Gala’s $55 ticket includes VIP seating for the concert, the pre-show Louisiana bayou-style barbecue with dinner entertainment by the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (Michael Eck & Greg Haymes), and post-concert café du monde dessert. The concert itself is free to the public as usual. For more information, visit www.music havenstage.org or call the Central Park office at 382-5152 or the Chamber of Schenectady County at 372-5656. . . . Chameleon on the Lake (251 Stafford Bridge Rd., Saratoga) is hosting a SPAC Food and Wine Fundraiser at 6:30 PM on Sept. 7 at the restaurant, which perches picturesquely on the northern inlet of Saratoga Lake. The event includes not only creative food and wine pairings but also Latin music and a complimentary dance lesson. The menu includes mushrooms stuffed with gorgonzola and sausage, paired with Sheldrake Chardonnay from Australia; coconut-crusted halibut with a Thai curry sauce, together with a Joseph Carr Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley; and coulat steak with a morel cherry sauce paired with Joseph Carr 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $110 per person, inclusive, and you can reserve a seat by phoning the restaurant at 581-3928. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail: food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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