The Solace of Food: Lessons from my year as a locavore

By Sarah Bodnar

If you had asked me a year ago what I expected things to be like at the end of this project, I probably would have been wrong. The unknown has characterized this project from Day One. If I had known what I would endure in the roughest times, I might not have signed up for this. Similarly unknown was the profound impact of this mammoth undertaking. 

For exactly one year, my fierce farmer friend Gowan Batist and I embarked on a radical plan to eat locally. During those twelve months both of our siblings married, our friends raised children, and we wed local food.

The rules were inspired and unforgiving. The goal was to eat food produced within Mendocino County, exclusively, and this included all of the raw inputs, from the grain to the oil, the salt, and the spices we consumed. No chocolate, no Sriracha sauce, no coconut water, no avocados—no exceptions whatsoever. After 365 days of this extreme locavorism, I am a changed woman.

Now that the project is officially over, everyone is wondering what post-project freedom looks like. It’s been strange. I am struggling to assimilate back into society and stumbling around the grocery store aisles like Encino Man. The first time I went grocery shopping, I left the store without buying anything, overwhelmed by the experience.

The second time I went, I bought a half-gallon of organic milk. It was the first time I’d bought milk in a carton in over a year; my milk has been coming in glass mason jars, straight from the cow. Coincidentally, the cow that has been providing for us dried up the week that the project ended, and there won’t be more fresh milk until spring—or until I befriend a new cow. I stood in the aisle bewildered by the fluorescent lights and bright cartons, and was surprised that the cost of milk in the store was actually the same as what I’ve been paying for fresh local milk.

Standing there I realized that I truly did not want to buy that carton of organic milk. The point wasn’t just that the milk didn’t have the same unadulterated richness and a thick layer of cream on the top. It was also that I felt uncomfortable going to the store and taking a generic carton off the shelf because I would never know where the milk came from, nor where the carton would end up. These seem like inconsequential details, but they matter to me now. I became so intimately involved with the life cycle of every single item that came into my kitchen for a year that I now see this carton as part of a profoundly complex and fragmented food system, in which the cow is separated from the consumer, and the cream is separated from the milk.

My Cupboards Contain Multitudes

The first few months of the project were stark and trying. Yet, by the end of last year, I was well prepared for winter. I have become a food-sourcing samurai, and my fridge, freezer, and pantry are fully stocked with stories in the form of foodstuffs. My shelves hold an assortment of culinary delights: pickled veggies, peaches, grape juice, and applesauce canned by neighbors and friends; dried hedgehog, bolete, and candy cap mushrooms, and roasted bay laurel nuts; dried kombu, wakame, and sea palm seaweeds, and some canned tuna from the sea. My spice rack holds dried bay leaves, oregano, sage, lots of garlic, alongside Lovers Lane Farm wildflower honey. My olive oil comes from Terra Savia, my apple cider vinegar from the Apple Farm, and I fermented the red wine vinegar using Frey biodynamic wine.

It took an entire County, many hands, many seeds, and many bees to fill these jars. It took two women an entire year to track down all this food, process and store it, and learn what to do with it. Following are some of the most important lessons I learned during the process.

Lesson 1: Eat whole foods.

Many people ask how I feel when I eat the local food diet, and I tell them I feel like superwoman. The truth is that I feel physically healthier and more in touch with the natural, seasonal moderation of excess and abundance. I find that my body tells me what it wants and needs, and that I listen.

I believe that most modern diets miss the point entirely by creating an artificial food ritual that involves counting, eliminating, and worrying, and that encourages eating highly processed, fractured foods. I believe that we have lost our intuition when it comes to food due to a highly predatory food system. I think the single best way to rediscover an intuitive relationship with nutrition is to eat more whole foods, before going for the supplements and miracle shakes. Many of my chronic health issues disappeared this year, and I was able to reintroduce gluten in moderation, eating the local heirloom grain that is delivered whole or freshly milled.

Lesson 2: You don’t need a recipe.

During my locavore experiment, the constantly changing flow of seasonal ingredients required nothing less than fearless improvisation on a daily basis. In a reversal of my previous relationship with food, I would start with the available ingredients, form a general concept, and then shape the meal accordingly, consulting my favorite cookbooks and the all-knowing Google, when necessary. Now when I post pictures of meals online and people ask for a recipe, I often feel bewildered because each meal is an original creation, probably imperfect, and will never be recreated in quite the same way. To me, cooking is less about the recipe than it is about the process of learning how to be resourceful and creative. Which is why I’m terrible at baking.

The takeaway here is that you don’t need to be a genius in the kitchen to prepare delicious food, especially when you’re working with real, fresh, tasty ingredients. You do need courage, though, and a lot of mason jars.

Lesson 3: Friends are those who feed you.

I owe my survival during my locavore year to the farmers, ranchers, and foragers who provided my sustenance and, consequently, I have come to see every food transaction as a life-giving act. To be a farmer or rancher today is an act of righteous faith. Growing real food is an investment in our collective future, and the people who choose to do so are my heroes. I know these heroes by their first names because they have become friends. They have invited me into their homes, shared of their pantries, and met me on the side of the highway to give me bacon. Our friends fed us, and those who fed us became friends.

Devout locavorism will test a friendship. It is an extraordinary friend who bakes you a 100% local carrot cake for your birthday (sans baking powder) because it’s what you want the most. It is a patient friend who teaches you how to can, even though you’re really afraid of it. It is a gracious friend who interrupts holiday preparations to help you track down a local chicken on Christmas Eve. I am beyond lucky to have many such friends who tolerated my lifestyle, fed me, and made this pioneering journey more delicious and less lonely.

The Solace of Food

In reflecting on this outrageous, profound experience, I find that many of my thoughts are still lost in translation. There is one thing I know for sure, however: This project was not about food; it was about what I found through food. It was about the things that I don’t want to give up, even when the rules no longer apply. What I discovered is more than just how to cook spare ribs. I discovered intimacy, connection, limits, abundance. I feel I learned how to truly nourish myself—which may be the greatest lesson of all.

As the seasons go, winter leads to spring, and my endeavor will not end with the calendar year but transition into a new beginning. Living and eating with the seasons is a way of life, and it’s a really good life. In a world of seemingly endless choices, the best choice may actually be the simpler choice. I can take a step toward that every day, with every meal.

Much has been compromised for this food mission, and other pursuits will surely reshape my rhythm. But I have channeled my inner pioneer woman, and she’s here to stay. She will continue to stock the fridge and pantry with local goods, to pull over on the side of the road to pick berries or nuts, to cook without recipes. The days ahead will also hold a little more spontaneity, a lot more tea parties with friends, some traveling, and some exotic spices and leavening agents.