From before the first frost until after the salad greens had finally poked their heads above the warming soil, most of my food for seven months came from within a couple dozen miles of my house. For a few things, I traveled to the corners of this watershed, which covers the northwest third of Vermont and a narrower fringe along the New York shore of Lake Champlain. (I did make what might be called the Marco Polo exception—I considered fair game anything your average 13th-century explorer might have brought back from distant lands. So pepper and turmeric, and even the odd knob of ginger, stayed in the larder.) Eating like this is precisely how almost every human being ate until very recently, and how most people in the world still do eat today. But in contemporary America, where the average bite of food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your lips, it was an odd exercise. Local and seasonal may have become watchwords of much new cooking, but I wanted to see what was really possible, especially in these northern climes. I know that eating close to home represents the history of American farming—but I sense it may have a future, too. The number of farms around Burlington, Vermont’s chief city, has grown 19 percent in the past decade. Most of them are small, growing food for local consumers instead of commodities for export; the same trend is starting to show up nationwide. Something’s happening, and I wanted to see exactly what.
I’m writing this, so you know I survived. But, in fact, I survived in style—it was the best eating winter of my life. Here’s my report:
The farmers market in Middlebury, Vermont, is in absolute fever bloom: sweet, sweet corn; big, ripe tomatoes; bunches of basil; melons. This is the bounty of our short but intense summer, when the heat of the long days combines with the moisture of these eastern uplands to produce almost anything you could want. It’s the great eating moment of the year.
But I’m wandering the market trying to keep the image of midwinter in mind—the short, bitter days of January, when the snow is drifted high against the house and the woodstove is cranking. I’m used to getting the winter’s wood in, but not to putting the winter’s food by. In our world, it’s always summer somewhere, and so we count on the same produce year-round. But that takes its toll: on the environment, from endless trucking and flying and shipping; on local farmers, who can’t compete with the equatorial bounty and hence sell their fields for condos; and most of all, perhaps, on taste. There’s nothing that tastes like a June strawberry; whereas a January supermarket strawberry tastes like … nothing.
All of which explains why I’m bargaining for canning tomatoes, the Romas with perhaps a few blemishes. Though mostly I want to spend the winter buying what’s available, I’ll put up a certain amount. My friend Amy Trubek volunteers to help—a food anthropologist, she’s the head of the Vermont Fresh Network, which partners farmers with chefs; she and her husband, Brad Koehler, one of the chefs at (and general manager of) Middlebury College’s renowned dining halls, also own a small orchard and a big vegetable garden, not to mention a capacious freezer. “A lot of people associate canning with their grandmother, hostage in the kitchen for six weeks,” she says. “But, hey, this is the twenty-first century. We can freeze, we can cure, we can Cryovac—we can do all this a hundred different ways.” An afternoon’s work, with the Red Sox beginning their stretch drive on the radio, and I’ve got enough tomato sauce frozen in Ziplocs to last me through the winter.
Fall lingers on (and the Red Sox, too). I’m already regarding the leaf lettuce in our local food co-op with a kind of nostalgia, knowing it’s about to disappear from my life. And I’m regarding two small bins in the co-op’s bulk section as my lifeline. They’re filled with local flour, 59 cents a pound. Once upon a time, the Champlain Valley was the nation’s granary—but that was back before the Erie Canal opened the way west and vast rivers of grain began rolling back from the deep topsoil of the Plains. Grain farming all but disappeared from the region; the most basic component of the American diet had to be imported from Nebraska.
But there’s always an oddball, and, in this case, his name is Ben Gleason, who came to Vermont, as did many others, as a part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. He found an old farm in the Addison County town of Bridport and began to plant it in a rotation of organic hard red winter wheat. Last year, for instance, he grew 30 tons on 28 acres, perfectly respectable even by Midwest standards, and he ground all of it with the small, noisy machine in the shed next to his house. He only does whole-wheat flour—white would require another machine, and anyway, as he points out, it’s not nearly as good for you. In any event, his is delicious—making pancakes flavorful enough to stand up to the Grade B maple syrup that’s the only kind we buy. (Grade A, Fancy—it’s for tourists. The closer to tar, the better.)
“There’s maybe four or five hundred acres altogether that’s planted in wheat around the area,” says Samuel Sherman, who owns Champlain Valley Milling, in Westport, New York. Mostly he grinds wheat that arrives by train car from the west, but he’d love to see more local product. “We can sell it in a minute,” he says. The proof is just down the lakeshore, in the town of Crown Point, where a young baker named Yannig Tanguy makes artisanal bread—fougasse, baguette, Swabian rye—entirely with local wheat that he grinds himself, sometimes 300 pounds in a day. Crown Point is a poor town next to an aging paper mill—and yet the door to the little bakery keeps popping open constantly. Here’s someone who wants to reserve ten loaves for an elementary school dinner the next week; here’s a woman to buy a cookie and say thanks for letting her park in the tiny lot during church that morning. “It’s not like I’m trying to invent anything with local food,” says Tanguy. “It all obviously worked for a long time. That we’re here today is proof that it worked. And it can work again.”