A Review of
The 100-Mile Diet:
A Year of Local Eating
Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKennon
A few years ago, while channel surfing, I came across an episode of the Canadian reality series, The 100 Mile Challenge. I was intrigued, not by eating locally grown foods but by there being enough interest in the subject to support a reality series; I was intrigued enough to record and watch all six episodes of the series that was about six families living in Mission, British Columbia, agreeing to only consume foods grown and processed within a 100 mile radius of Mission for 100 days. The families had more difficulty finding and eating local foods than I would have expected.
Memory of the series stayed with me as I put away garden produce for winter consumption, year by year, having done so since I was a youth. Fruits, vegetables, meats, plus processed pickles, relishes, sauces. And as winter came upon us and I opened the first of this past summer’s produce, I began to think about food-miles; about how far bananas travel, oranges. I decided to see if the book that inspired the series was still available: The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon (Random House Canada, 2007 — ISBN 0679314822), both young professional journalists then living in a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver.
In most northern regions (above 45 degrees of latitude), the problem of eating only local foods is one of obtaining variety: when living on Kodiak Island in the early 1980s, my youngest daughter, then nine, asked, “Mama, isn’t there any way you can make salmon taste like roast beef?” She had been eating salmon every day and a couple of times a day for months. Deer season was still open. I went hunting. For the rest of the winter we supplemented the abundance of salmon we had with venison.
In the 100-Mile Diet, Smith and MacKinnon recount their motivation and difficulties faced in limiting their diet, for one year, to foods grown within a 100 miles of Vancouver, British Columbia. They began their year in March 2005. They began with little preparation and at a time of year when there was virtually no locally grown product to be purchased. And after one glorious meal that represented their month’s grocery budget, they faced the reality that without a summer’s worth of preparation or unlimited funds, eating local foods was expensive if even possible.
The structure of the book has chapters representing months, with the narrative of each chapter detailing Smith and MacKinnon’s success or lack of success in acquiring, preparing, and eating local foods, with the authors individually writing alternating chapters that also discuss their relationship with each other and the stain placed upon it by their commitment to eating only local foods.
It’s not easy to suddenly give up the modern urban diet of fresh foods shipped in from around the world for a winter diet of roots and tubers (turnips and potatoes) and not much of anything else until greens sprout in the spring. For Smith and MacKinnon not only hadn’t put away a portion of the previous summer harvest for winter—they really had no previous summer’s harvest—but they didn’t have either the local contacts or resources needed to obtain what was available in and around Vancouver, British Columbia. Plus, they lacked basic knowledge of differing ways to prepare what little that was available from local sources.
The book is as much about discovery of what already exists as it is about rejecting the industrialized marketing of international foods to the wealthy and semi-wealthy of the 21st-Century. However, a shadow of what was—a shadow of how Vancouver fed itself a century earlier—remained visible, with this shadow symbolized by Smith and MacKinnon’s cabin and property near the ghost town of Dorreen, now a rail flag stop between Cedarvale and Terrace on the west side of the Skeena River, with in their words, “Starting in the 1950s, Dorreen became a part of the great receding tide of things local and small-scale” (Chapter titled, “August,” p. 113). Vancouver area agriculture was part of this “great receding tide.”
The population of Dorreen in the 1956 census was 37; in the 1971 census, 7. The Canadian National Railway in 1967 identified Dorreen as a 51 car siding; in 1969, Dorreen was a siding without passenger or freight service. It is now a flag stop unlike Alaska Railroad flag stops at which the flagged train stops. Rather, when a train is flagged at Dorreen, the next train through stops as if even the railroad isn’t certain it wants to return to when Dorreen was a viable community.
Collectively, Vancouver agriculture isn’t certain it wants to reengage in competitive markets dominated by giant producers using cheap energy and oversized tractors and combines.
The staples of Smith and MacKinnon’s diet became seafood, chicken and eggs, potatoes, berries, and corn. They did without cooking oil, rice, sugar, and they hoarded the small amount of salt they had on hand.
They wrote about their local eating experiment in articles published by the online magazine, The Tyee: the popularity of these articles led to the book, which in turn led to the television reality series that caught my attention.
After a lean beginning of the year, Smith and MacKinnon began to preserve foodstuffs for winter eating, while at the same time they established local contacts selling into the small niche market that existed in Vancouver for truly fresh foods … on Kodiak when I was there, a woman was overheard telling her coworker that she bought her children fresh fruits so that they would know what apples, oranges, peaches, pears, strawberries looked like. Once while traveling to the Lower Forty-Eight, my wife bought a sack of oranges at Watson Lake, Yukon Territories, because they smelled like oranges: they were from New Zealand, and better than anything brought into Kodiak that she could remember.
The 100-Mile Diet is non-fiction and a worthwhile read, especially for those who are the age of my children and the half generation younger—generations that buy frozen pies rather than making a pie from fruit they processed the previous summer; from flour they ground from wheat purchased locally; from oil they pressed from locally grown oil seeds … at some point, eating local can be taken too far, that is until a Sabbatarian Christian can no longer buy and sell. Then, the only door open to the person will be eating local. So while Sabbatarian Christians will be critical of the seafood consumed, the difficulty in making the transition from dependence upon industrialized agriculture to local independence is a story every Sabbatarian will most likely be able to personally tell in the near future. And the personal difficulties Smith and MacKinnon experienced in their relationship makes a reasonable argument for a legal commitment at least as inflexible as was their commitment to local eating for a year.
Once when arriving just as the developmental English class I was to teach began and needing a minute to prepare what I intended to present, I asked the class to write a paragraph about why they would feed a child pumpkin pie … the class went silent and stared at me like I had made an unreasonable request. I stopped what I was doing: “Well, why would you feed a child pumpkin pie?” Nothing. Not a word. No hand up. Absolute blankness. “What’s in pumpkin pie?” Still nothing. Then from the back corner one fellow sheepishly raised his hand: “Squash, milk, eggs, sugar.”
“He’s right. A yellow vegetable, milk and eggs and enough sugar to make the yellow vegetable taste good. … How many of you have made a pumpkin pie?”
Again, no response except from the fellow who knew what was in pumpkin pies: “I help my mom make them in the restaurant.”
I then pointed with an open hand at a row of female students across the room. “If any of you wanted a pumpkin pie, how would you get one?”
Almost in unison, they said, “I’d buy a Mrs. Smith’s pie.”
The concept of local eating is one that needs explored by more people. The 100-Mile Diet is the first voluntary exploration of this subject that I have encountered, and a good exploration, a good read. And personally, if I had Smith and MacKinnon’s property at Dorreen, I would never return to Vancouver.
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