Daughter and Mom Discover Joys of Eating What’s Local
It takes a special kind of person to commit to eating an all-local diet. The ones you hear about are the ones who’ve made money off the project. Barbara Kingsolver wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The 100-mile-diet originators Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon wrote Plenty. Colin Beavan produced the No Impact Man book and blog and was the subject of a documentary.
Kristen and Olivia Vittitow are just two regular females living busy lives in the far eastern suburbs of Metro Louisville. Olivia, 13, attends Sacred Heart Model School and dances ballet 20 hours a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Many nights she’s late coming home. Kristen is employed full time at Steinrock Roofing and Sheet Metal near downtown, and shares the car pool duties to and from dance practices with another mother.
Friday nights are often girls’ night in. In the heaviest dance season, Olivia will have been dancing after school all week and faces a 10 am to 4 pm practice on Saturday. The Vittitows often spend the evening watching a movie. One night in November, they watched the documentary made about Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man project, a project about one family’s attempt to reduce its impact on climate change. Partway through it, Olivia swung around to put her face directly in front of her mother’s. “We are not doing this,” she said emphatically.
The Vittitows have had their jags. “We are very project-oriented people,” says Olivia. “We get into little crazes.” Ballroom dancing was one. Kristen suspects she had that “project” look on her face when Olivia confronted her. The next morning, on the way to ballet practice, Olivia softened. “The No Impact documentary really sparked an idea of something that could make a difference in the environment,” she says now, “and be a healthy change for my mom and me.” Olivia likes mixing up routine in her life.
“We decided to call it Our Low Impact Project,” says Kristen, and they made a list of the ways they could reduce their impact on the Earth, guided by but not identical to Beavan’s. Living in the suburbs, traveling to Chicago for several dance events, they couldn’t get away from the car. But they could make many other changes, and they made a list of possibilities: shopping only local vendors, recycling, no disposable paper products, no television (with a two-show exception), no electric lights one night a week…
Much of their change centered on food. Kristen, a vegetarian for decades, relied on a national supermarket chain for her groceries, prepared a lot of pasta and found herself hoping for inspiration by looking at the supermarket shelves. “We did not enjoy grocery shopping,” she says.
So the Vittitows planned the project to coincide with a 13-week food subscription service (or CSA for “community-supported agriculture), which began November 29, just weeks before the winter solstice, when days are short and produce is scarce. “Many farmers that I spoke with confirmed that we had indeed chosen the most difficult season to attempt to eat totally locally,” says Kristen. Still, “we do not back down from a challenge.”
They received milk, eggs, cheese, bread and vegetables from their CSA. Some weeks, there were plenty of greens: hothouse lettuce, or spinach, or kale. Other times, they were swimming in turnips. Sweet potatoes were plentiful and welcomed; parsnips were a pleasant surprise.
“When we started this project I probably couldn’t tell you one thing that was local,” says Kristen. Mother and daughter would scour labels and local market shelves for anything that was local. They spent a lot of time at ValuMarket in the Highlands, far from their home but a little closer to work and school, where they found onions from Ohio in addition to a wide selection of Kentucky products. Kristen saved labels and made lists so that she could reference local sources. She drank locally made beer and wine and locally roasted, fair trade coffee.
Olivia carried her lunch to school, putting leftover soup in a thermos, packing salads made of greens and leftover roasted vegetables. For dessert she might pack a piece of Cellar Door chocolate, or something from Stellar Sweets. Olivia used cloth napkins and real silverware, gave up fast food. On Fridays, when students were allowed to bring a soft drink, she brought Winchester-made Ale-8, until one of the teachers balked at the glass bottle. “It’s really cool,” eating local food, says Olivia, “instead of eating potato chips and McDonalds.”
Mother and daughter carried mental “bead bracelets” in their head: the concept was that each bracelet had three clay beads, and each could “break a bead,” or break the commitment. One day when they were shopping, they were overwhelmed by the smell of chicken cooking. Olivia’s resolve began to waver. “You can break a bead,” her mother said. Instead, they went home and ate sweet potato fries. Resistance to a “dangerous” glass bottle in school was part of a stream of pushback the Vittitows encountered. Some people would focus on their intake of coffee and chocolate (purchased from local vendors), instead of celebrating the plethora of sweet potatoes they lived on.
Others would question the economy of the project. “Isn’t it more expensive?” people asked Kristin, who paid a large lump sum to get started on her winter CSA. But “by the end of the project I was going full weeks without spending any money” on food, says Kristen.
Instead, the Vittitows ate everything delivered by their CSA, supplemented by purchases at independent supermarkets. They allowed themselves to use food in their pantry — providing sugar for a browned butter cake at Christmas, made with butter made near and bought in bulk on a dance trip to Chicago and flour from Weisenberger Mill. Ice cream to go with the cake was made from J. D. Country Milk products and local honey. Even if eating locally were more expensive, says Kristen, “I would rather put a little more money in my daughter’s stomach, so she can go to school and feel good and go to dance and feel good.”
And the food tasted better, says Olivia. Vegetable stock, which Kristen made about three times a week, “was the best vegetable stock, it was real vegetables,” Olivia says. She compared cheese from a brick of Kraft with Kenny’s Farmhouse cheddar that came with the CSA delivery. After the initial burst of flavor from Kraft, the taste disappeared, she says. “The other, it slowly melted in your mouth and you could taste it the whole time.”
Over time, Kristen began to learn sources for local food and was no longer thinking about food constantly, a requirement at first. Kristen would cook; Olivia would assist and help find recipes on the computer. “We had to make a lot of adaptations,” says Olivia. “It inspired us to work with what we had.”
If they didn’t have butter to make quiche crust, Olivia would find an olive oil crust that worked just as well. Kristen used daikon radish in egg salad instead of celery; she’d put any green — including kale and spinach — on a sandwich, and she roasted pounds of vegetables. They relied on soups, stratas, soufflés, quiches and sandwiches; they made a lot of ice cream.
In the end, they learned to live without the television, though they had given themselves permission to watch two shows. “I took up knitting,” says Olivia. “I got a knitting kit for Christmas.” Mother and daughter watched Netflix documentaries every Friday as before, staying on topic with their project, including movies like King Corn, Food Inc. and Killer at Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat.
And both of them lost weight: Kristen lost a pound a week; Olivia began to drop pounds toward the end of the project, though she thinks much of that was due to her rigorous dancing schedule. Because she’s so petite, she packed bigger lunches and “I love ice cream, so yes, there were some additional milkshakes,” she says.
Though the project ended in March, the Vittitows still follow much the same rules for their diet, with more liberal use of fruit. “We continue to buy from local businesses [like Burgers, ValuMarket, Dolls, Lotsa Pasta, farmers’ markets, etc.].” Sometimes, early spring — February and March — are the most difficult times to find fresh produce.
Then, Kristen says, “I opt for responsible choices if I can’t get locally grown, i.e. organic or grown somewhere in the Ohio Valley. During the project, we were successful in eating food that mostly came from 150 miles or less. I still can’t bring myself to do anything crazy, like buy bananas from Mexico or strawberries in March.
“I tell people that once the veil has been lifted, it’s hard to go back to the way we were eating,” she says.
Courtesy of Kristen and Olivia Vittitow
Here’s Kristen on making local vegetable broth: “Initially, I was a purist, making broth the long, Cook’s Illustrated way. But soup became a mainstay in our winter diet, so the demand for broth increased. I rounded up vegetable scraps and plonked them into a large pot. I added a bit of salt, brought to a boil and quickly reduced to a simmer and kept on low heat for an hour or so. I strained the vegetables to get every last bit of flavor. I still had some frozen herbs from my garden so I often flavored the broth with those as well [basil and thyme were favorites]. I used sweet potato skins, tops of carrots or radishes, greens, kale, just anything that we were not going to necessarily cook in another capacity. I made sure everything was clean and free of dirt and well salted. Sometimes, I added a splash of white wine. Daikon and turnips were not helpful in broth; they tend to release a bitter flavor that we did not care for. Greens worked well and, of course, I always used onions. I usually began my broth making by cooking a large onion (and garlic if I had it) in a bit of olive oil or butter before adding the all the other vegetables and water.”
Courtesy of Kristen and Olivia Vittitow
Kristen and Olivia received local bread, milk, eggs and cheese in their weekly food subscription, so those ingredients were always on hand (the flour is Weisenberger Mills from Midway). This soufflé (adapted from a recipe Kristen found online) is light, yet quite comforting. It perfect for breakfast or served with a side salad for lunch or a light dinner. She once used chocolate goat cheese for a dessert soufflé.
- 1 and 1/4 cups of dry breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 3 large egg yolks
- 6 large egg whites
- 1 cup milk
- 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Preheat oven to 350°. Rub a standard soufflé dish with 2 tablespoons of butter. Pat the sides and bottom of dish with dry breadcrumbs. Tap out any excess breadcrumbs and set the dish aside.
- Prepare the goat cheese by crumbling it in a small bowl in advance. Set aside. Prepare the 3 egg yolks in advance by lightly beating them in a separate small bowl and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter over low-medium heat. Add the flour and cook 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually whisk in the cup of milk and immediately increase heat to medium. Simmer the mixture until very thick, stirring constantly. This will happen within minutes. Do not let the mixture brown. Quickly crumble in half of the goat cheese and whisk until melted and smooth. Stir in salt and pepper. Gradually whisk the egg yolks in hot soufflé base. Remove from heat and let cool 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, beat the 6 egg whites in a large bowl until stiff, but not dry. Purists use a whisk, but a hand mixer does the job. Once stiff, gently fold ¼ of whites into soufflé base to lighten. Continue to fold in remaining egg whites. Fold in remaining goat cheese crumbles. Pour into prepared soufflé dish. Place dish into a larger metal baking pan and add enough hot water to the pan so it comes halfway up the sides of the soufflé dish. Bake the soufflé for about 20 minutes or until puffed and golden brown on top. A soufflé waits for no one, so serve immediately.
Our Low-Impact Project (O-LIP) Guidelines – 13 weeks
(Modeled after the “No Impact Project” by Colin Beavan) Dates: November 29, 2010–March 4, 2011 (to coincide with our Winter CSA)
- Join a CSA
- Limit eating out substantially. Only patronize Kentucky Proud establishments and/or LIBA businesses.
- Buy local (except for pre-specified gifts)
- One night a week, live only by candlelight with local beeswax candles. Can leave outside lights on for safety. Can use heat in dead of winter. Can cook as necessary. Can use computer if essential (homework, bill pay, etc.)
- Buy no paper/plastic products. Use rags, cloth napkins, etc.
- Saturday or Sunday: Wash one load a week by hand
- (leotards, tights would be easy)
- Reduce, Reuse and Recycle as usual.
- Only use recycled bags. No plastic bags.
- Make bracelets with (3) “cheat” beads to represent a physical reminder of temptations.
- Document trash output, gratitude, and hardships.
- One field trip (one meeting, i.e. Common Grounds or Green Convene)
- Upgrade something in home with a sustainable material. (i.e. bathroom floor)
- Substantially reduce TV viewing to predetermined shows.
- Start composting.
Sweet! This Spud’s for You:
Kristen’s & Olivia’s recommendations for sweet potatoes Sweet potatoes were the most common vegetable the Vittitows received during their Winter CSA Share each week, so they had to get creative. They were not familiar with parsnips before they joined the CSA, but ended the project loving parsnips and thought they were the perfect complement to sweet potatoes and squash.
Sweet Potato Fries: Olivia loved baked sweet potato fries. Kristen baked them in the oven (a special favorite) rather than fry them in oil. Sometimes they made different dipping sauces for them (melted cheese mixed with milk in a double boiler, or warm maple syrup, or ketchup mixed with mayonnaise, etc). This recipe worked to mitigate Olivia’s craving fast-food French fries. Roasted Style: Cube sweet potatoes and parsnips, drizzle with olive oil to lightly coat, roast in the oven about 30 minutes or until they are easily pierce-able with a fork. Once you take them out, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Kristen adds the seasoning after cooking because otherwise the vegetables release water and they get a bit soggy. Since sweet potatoes were “coming out our ears, I would roast several and add them to things like soups and even diced in a salad,” says Kristen.
Sometimes Kristen would spoon a tablespoon of maple syrup (also local) on top of the cubed, roasted vegetables for the last 5 to 7 minutes of roasting. It melts into a wonderful glaze.
Baked, Stuffed or Mashed: If you cube sweet potatoes to bite size and roast them, they are perfect to add into omelets with or without a little cheese. The sweet potatoes also worked baked, mashed, or soufflé style. Sometimes, Kristen would bake the sweet potato, combine the meat of the sweet potato with a few cubed, roasted parsnips and some cheese, then re-stuff the potato to replicate a twice-baked potato. Put back in the oven and heat through.
CSAs Offer Won-Win Partnership
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way for consumers to get fresh, locally grown, seasonal food while providing the farmer a better cash flow and insurance against disaster. A consumer buys a “share” of the farmer’s (or group of farmers’) output at the beginning of a season, and in return receives a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce (and sometimes other agricultural output, including meat, flowers, etc.) each week throughout the farming season.
This arrangement is good for the farmer, because he or she can spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their busy season begins, and receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow. And the arrangement is good for consumers, who get fresh food weekly while guaranteeing a living to the farmer, preserving the agricultural economy with all the environmental and quality of life benefits that come with that.
There are variations on the one-farmer, many-customers model of CSA. In Louisville, for instance, Grasshoppers Distribution (http://www.grasshoppersdistribution.com/) procures from as many as 60 farmers and its products, which include milk, meat, cheese and more, can be purchased in a variety of ways (including a “breakfast” package and a “goat cheese” package).
CSAs differ from each other. Some feature organic produce. Others are meat only. Sometimes groups of farmers collaborate to provide a wide variety of products. Comprehensive lists can be found at www.kyagr.com/marketing/plantmktg/csa.htm and www.localharvest.org/. Local Harvest also has a list of tips to consider before signing up for a CSA and a list of questions to ask the farmer.