The word "local" has a dozen different definitions, depending on who you ask. Some say that eating locally means eating from within a 100- or even 50-mile radius. Others say that local means eating from your foodshed, which may include neighboring states or refer to whole regions of the country. But to Robin Mather, an editor and writer who lives in southwest Michigan, eating local means sourcing her food almost exclusively from within her own small town. In her book The Feast Nearby: How I Lost My Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (All on Forty Dollars a Week) (phew!), she details four seasons of local eating in the truest sense.
Within a week in 2009, Mather lost her job as food writer for The Chicago Tribune and ended her marriage of twelve years. Depressed and lost, she retreated to a small summer home beside a lake in rural Michigan. Few people in the town were full-time residents; most came up on warm weekends, and in the winter the lake was quiet and peaceful. Mather saw this cottage as the perfect place to make a new home with her talkative parrot and playful dog.
With a very limited income, Mather knew that she had to watch her food bills. But she also knew she wanted to spend as much of her forty dollars a week in food expenses on local growers and businesses as she could. She lays down a few ground rules in the book's introduction, including allowances for coffee beans, sugar, and spices to be sourced from further away. But her weekly consumption of produce, meat, and grains would come from farmers within her immediate surroundings, and of course her diet would follow the schedule of the growing season.
Mather's book is separated into the four seasons, and each essay focuses on one or two seasonal ingredients. Summer brings bartering with a neighbor for his overflowing garden produce; winter inspires inventive stews spiced with exotic flavors. In addition to dozens of delicious recipes, Mather also includes much practical advice for making seasonal eating last year-round. From canning to cheese-making, Mather found ways of stretching the summer and minimizing her need for trips to the town store. Her straight-forward tips make eating locally more exciting than just salads, roasted veggies and jam.
Mather's lifestyle certainly takes local to the extreme, and she spends a huge amount of time purchasing, preparing, and preserving her food. But her essays should not be taken as a prescription for the best way to eat—rather, we can all learn about more creative and delicious ways to make use of each season's abundance. Even taking just a few tidbits away from The Feast Within will make your trips to the farmer's market more enriching—and perhaps inspire you to throw up a few jars of delicious summer corn relish to be enjoyed year-round.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.