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Food Issue - My week on an all-Georgia diet

I do what I can to eat food grown locally.

During the summer, I shop at my neighborhood farmer's market. I buy locally raised meats when I can afford them. I make a feeble attempt at growing my own veggies. And the milk my son drinks gallons of per week comes from a Georgia dairy.

I do this for a few reasons – partly because it's better for the environment and my community, partly because local food is fresher and has more taste.

But for this year's Food Issue, I wanted to take the idea one step further. I wondered how difficult it would be to eat totally locally – to rely on Georgia and Georgia alone for all my sustenance. I wanted to highlight our state's producers, to celebrate the farmers and cheesemakers and others who live in our community and offer us alternatives to the packaged foods that travel thousands of miles to reach our kitchens. So I set aside a week in August, and restricted myself to foods grown and produced in Georgia.

I'm not the first to try such a thing. In 2004, a Vancouver couple decided to eat only local produce for a year – the story is told in the book The 100 Mile Diet. Barbara Kingsolver chronicled her family's yearlong local-eating experiment in the 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But part of the point of locavorism is that each community is different, with its own riches and gaps in the food supply. I wanted to see how hard it would be, and to find out the obstacles to truly local Georgia eating.

I did allow myself a couple of cheats: salt, oil and yeast. But apart from that, I was strict, which meant no sugar, no beer (there's lots of beer produced in Georgia, but none that's made with all Georgia-grown ingredients) and no pepper.

I discovered that access, not bounty, created the greatest obstacles – even with the help of a Community Supported Agriculture group (which delivers a variety of local produce to consumers) and the many markets Atlanta has, there were times I found myself hungry, simply because local food can't be found in most of the places people shop. To eat this way all the time would take incredible planning.

The best part of my experiment was visiting producers on their farms and at their homes in rural and sometimes suburban Georgia. To become familiar with the family, the face, the human story behind what I was eating was a powerful motivator. I hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as I enjoyed my week on the Georgia diet.

Day One: Monday, August 18

Honestly, I could've been better prepared. I got home late last night from a trip to North Carolina and woke up this morning with nothing to eat, let alone a fully stocked Georgia-grown pantry. But I did have some local eggs, and I fried two of those for breakfast.

In other ways, I was extremely well-prepared. I've planned out a menu for the week, which I went over with Michael Schenck, a guy who's basically a local vegetable consultant for Atlanta chefs. He also does the Atlanta-area delivery and sales for the Moore Farms and Friends CSA. He assured me I could get almost everything I needed, plus some added goodies. A box was waiting for me at a local restaurant where Schenck had dropped it off on Saturday. At least, I figured, I'd have everything I needed to get through the next few days, until the farmer's markets started.

When I arrived later this morning to pick up my box, my heart sank. My trusty menu plan said I'd be having ratatouille with roasted chicken tonight. But my box contained no summer squash, and too few tomatoes for stew. I also realized that the promised oatmeal, which I'd hoped would save me in the breakfast department, was actually grown and milled just over the border in Alabama.

But the box also held some treats I wasn't expecting, including two containers of pristine raspberries from Flat Creek Lodge, a paper bag full of small round Asian pears, as well as apples, peaches, and a container of Flat Creek Lodge's crumbly blue cheese.

I'm realizing that, as much as the plan in my pocket makes me feel better, it's practically useless. I'm quickly learning the lesson chefs who cook with local ingredients have been trying to explain to me for years: This is a different way of thinking about cooking – you don't foresee dishes and fit the ingredients neatly into your plans. The ingredients come and you make what you can with them.

By midafternoon, I was half-starved, reaching into my box of produce and randomly stuffing things into my mouth. How's that for a plan? For dinner, I had heirloom tomatoes with a juicy, crispy roasted chicken, garnished with basil from my garden.

Day Two: Tuesday, August 19

This morning I attempted to make homemade bread. Part of the panic that set in a few weeks back was quelled when I discovered Mike Buckner, who mills local wheat flour at his Junction City grainery.

Flour meant bread, and bread meant a full belly.

Finding a recipe that accommodated my restrictions was a challenge, and finally I ended up concocting my own. I swapped sugar and molasses in one recipe for honey, and borrowed the egg wash on top from another.

Buckner's flour is coarse and contains more chaff – the seed debris left over from milling – than store-bought flour. As a result, my bread bakes up denser and heartier than I'm used to, but also sweet and satisfying. It's the kind of food that provides a feeling of intrinsic security. I think it's safe to say that bread's been around long enough to have penetrated our psyches on an evolutionary level. I touch the warm loaves and know in my DNA that I won't starve this week.

Which isn't to say I won't go a little hungry. After a small lunch of fresh bread with a Beech Creek Farms peach on the side, my husband and I headed up to Dahlonega to check out the wineries. Three wineries and four hours later, I was so hungry I could barely stand it. We were looking at two hours before we'd make it back home to my lifesaving loaf of bread. One of the winery employees told me there were local peaches at the Wal-Mart up the street, so we decided to stop there.

When we arrived at Wal-Mart, I ravenously searched the produce section, but to no avail. All I could find were some Georgia onions. As my husband slunk off to the Subway at the front of the store, I checked the nut isle to see if there were any Georgia pecans, then the dairy isle. Nothing.

I wouldn't expect Wal-Mart to carry much local produce. It's one thing to know that intellectually; it's another to be desperately hungry, standing in the midst of a huge store full of food, and realize that nothing, not one thing (save an onion) in all these isles and isles of food came from within state lines. It seemed ludicrous. I would've laughed if my stomach didn't hurt.

On the way back into Atlanta, I made my husband turn off at the Perimeter to go to Alon's in Dunwoody. I found a small wheel of Sweet Grass Dairy's Green Hill cheese. As the cashier looked on in horror, I tore open the wrapper and bit into the gooey cheese as if it were an apple. "Eating locally," I said in a desperate attempt to explain, mouth full.

"Uh-huh," he said uneasily.

Day Three: Wednesday, August 20

This morning I was in Decatur and decided to stop by Your DeKalb Farmers Market to get more cheese, and possibly some local butter (an item I know exists but has so far eluded me). I love this place as much as the next Atlantan, but I've always kind of resented that it calls itself a farmer's market.

I made my way over to the cheese department, and after a few minutes of looking, I asked one of the guys behind the counter if they had any Sweet Grass cheese. "What?" he asked, looking perplexed in his massive refrigeration-fighting parka.

"Sweet Grass Dairy?" I said hopefully. He shook his head, not understanding. "Cheese from Georgia?" I tried.

"Oh!" he said. "No. We don't have any Georgia cheese."

I've gotta say, I was surprised. At Wal-Mart, I felt silly for expecting to find Georgia food, but here I thought it would be easy.

Next I headed to the dairy section, where there was also nothing from Georgia. So I tried produce.

It's the middle of August, so there were a ton of peaches. They came from all over – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, even Washington state, but not from Georgia.

The market's produce section is impressive in part because of all the locations represented, but Georgia doesn't figure heavily at all. I was able to find muscadine grapes, hot peppers, okra and bitter melon from Georgia, but no Georgia tomatoes. No Georgia eggplants. No greens.

Tonight, without any help from Your DeKalb Farmers Market, I cooked one of the best meals I've had in months – Riverview Farms Berkshire pork chops over Logan Turnpike grits. I made a salad from Stoke Farms' beautiful Asian pears and Flat Creek's stridently sharp blue cheese. I washed it down with Frogtown's 2003 Marsanne, a funky, rich, delightful white wine from Dahlonega.

Eating food this fresh, flavorful and honest every night isn't something I'm accustomed to. This week is turning out to be more of a blessing than a chore.

Day Four: Thursday, August 21

The East Atlanta Farmer's Market was tonight, and I finally got my ratatouille ingredients. I bought a lot of other exciting things as well, including a huge bag of collard greens from Steve Miller, along with potatoes and roma tomatoes. I bought eggplants and tomatoes from Scharko Farms, and lovely spreadable goat cheese from Decimal Place dairy – perfect on my bread along with Hidden Springs honey.

I have to say, it's difficult to pay $11 for a bag of collards when you know you could get the same bag of greens at the grocery store for $3. There's no denying the twinge of pain my wallet is feeling, although the market is often far cheaper than buying organic produce at Whole Foods. And yes, it's nice to know my dollars are staying local, especially here at the EAV market where many of the farmers are literally my neighbors. But I'd be lying if I said this week didn't entail some financial sacrifice.

I used our former columnist Kim O'Donnel's ratatouille recipe, which I find instantly comforting. There's no dish in the world as fresh and yet hearty, as bright as it is filling. My kid hates every ingredient in ratatouille (except tomatoes) but he gobbles the stuff up like it's a bowl full of chocolate-covered Cheetos whenever I make it.

Day Five: Friday, August 22

I woke up this morning to find my precious bread knocked onto the floor – most likely the work of my naughty cat. I nearly cried – I'd been so looking forward to my breakfast of bread with goat cheese and honey. But the loaf was a scattered mess of crumbs and unsalvageable. I stood miserably in the middle of the kitchen and ate leftover ratatouille out of the container for breakfast. It was still good (much like beef stew, it gets better on the second and third days), but my stomach craved the stability of carbs.

Later in the day, a rare gift: A woman who lives up the street called to say her figs were ripe and that I was welcome to pick as many as I pleased. I took a break from making my second batch of bread (which turned out better, denser and sweeter than the first) to go gather figs. I brought them back to my kitchen counter and stood there, gobbling the sweet, gooey treats greedily.

Day Six: Saturday, August 23

Yes, there are many things that taste better when you buy them locally. The differences between a mealy, pallid supermarket tomato and a juicy, vibrant, locally grown tomato are well-documented. But even veggies bought from the farmer's market can't compare to eating something you've grown yourself. One of the best things about summer is the taste of cherry tomatoes, still covered in pollen and warm from the sun.

Most summers, I have a moderate veggie garden – it's one of the true joys of my year. I become obsessed and often try to keep my plants alive well into the fall by covering them with bags to protect from the frost. This year, I didn't do enough to replenish the soil in my small plot, and my garden was practically barren. It yielded only one red pepper, two tomatoes and three miniature Japanese eggplants.

I also bought a lemon tree a couple of months ago, specifically so I could have lemons this week. When I bought the plant, there were four small green lemons on its branches. I figured that by the time my local eating week rolled around, I'd have four ripe lemons. Those four lemons are still small and hard and green. "Maybe they're limes," my husband offered. But karma is very straightforward when it comes to gardening – if you don't put good things back into your piece of earth, it will refuse to produce for you.

One thing I've discovered this week is the amazing difference between store-bought potatoes and locally grown ones. I have Steve Miller to thank for that. While other farmers in the market mainly stick to tomatoes and eggplants, Miller devotes just as much energy to staples such as potatoes and onions. His potatoes are startling.

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never cooked local potatoes at home before (another one of those items that's hard to pay premium for when they're so cheap at the grocery store). They're startling in part because they taste like something, like earth and natural sugars and ... well, I guess they taste like potatoes. You should try one. Potatoes that taste like potato are surprisingly potato-y.

Tonight I roasted a bunch of potato-y potatoes with another Springer Mountain chicken. My son, who's too young to understand my experiment, isn't too young to understand good food. "We should cook like this all the time," he said.

Day Seven: Sunday, August 24

For my last meal of the week, we decided to do something ambitious: braised rabbit from Bullard Rabbits with homemade whole-wheat pasta using Mike Buckner's flour. As we cut up the rabbit and labored over keeping the course pasta dough together, my husband asked me what I'm looking forward to eating tomorrow, when my local experiment is over.

Beer.

And non-Georgian wine. I've found some good wines to drink, but there are some really bad ones as well, and all of them are more expensive than other wines of similar quality. Call it a plus, but my alcohol consumption has been way down this week.

But apart from that, I can't think of much else. I thought, perhaps, that this week would be difficult, that I'd feel deprived. But instead, I was given a gift – the knowledge that between my community and myself, it's possible to sustain my family. There's great comfort in that.

The truth is that we live in the center of an incredibly fertile piece of the planet that's able to produce an amazing variety of foods. And perhaps more importantly, we live among people who love working with the land, who spend their lives trying to keep traditional farming alive – not for any great financial gain, but because it's what they love. No factory farm can replace that.

There were times when I almost slipped up, like when my husband passed me an Italian soda he'd bought to see what I thought. There were times when I wished I could join friends at a restaurant or bar. But there was no time that I felt that eating locally was a hardship. In fact, this week, I probably ate better than anyone else in Georgia.



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