Getting My Laura Ingalls On!

(First of all, I want to say, yes, I know this blog is ugly right now.  Once in Barrow, I’ll fork over the $30 to customize my CSS style sheets.  Right now, though, it’s all I can do to keep my head above water with the move, my teaching, and all that’s going on in my life. So this will get prettified in a few months.  Promise.)

Yesterday I down the mountain and into the valley – Boulder, to be specific – to do my weekly errands:  library (I ❤ the Boulder Public Library), Target, McGuckins (a very cool hardware store that has cooking stuff and camping stuff and gardening stuff – for Alaskan readers, it’s like a Fred Meyers sans grocery),  a nice food break where I whipped out my printed novel draft and edited two chapters, and then off to Whole Foods, the Mt. Olympus of grocery stores.

Yes, I prefer farmers’ markets – heck, my novel is ABOUT a farmers’ market in Alaska – but it’s February in Colorado, and the market won’t open again til spring.  I’m rereading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now, and he has a whole section on the “supermarket pastoral,” which is the narrative food marketers write for consumers (like me) who want to live off the land, but live in Boulder or LA or Chicago.  The supermarket pastoral makes us feel good about our purchases, although the gritty reality is that buying organic at a place such as Whole Foods usually means participating in the ugly underbelly of the industrial food chain, with all of its fossil fuel waste, and in the case of meat and dairy, factory farming.  The reality of “big organics” is not what we want, but it’s definitely what we’re getting. Small family farms can’t get contracts with grocery stores because how could they ever keep the shelves filled with tomatoes year long?  And we need our tomatoes year long, right?  Small farms don’t practice monoculture.  That’s what the industrial organic farms due, though, so while it’s true the pesticide levels in the ground (and therefore groundwater) are reduced, the soil quality is also reduced since they don’t rotate crops. That’s not efficient, the favorite word of anyone interested in making a buck, which is what this all comes down to in the end.

Despite the picture of cows grazing in big pastures on your milk carton, the truth is that in order to supply big grocery chains that sell organics (Whole Foods, Walmart), sellers need to go the industrial route, so while your organic milk is indeed free from antibiotics and the producing animal was fed organic corn, making it “organic,” the cow was factory farmed, milked too many times a day, and was not living that happy life we imagined and hoped, due in no small part to the misleading pics of pastoral bliss on the carton.  Same with your bagged lettuce, your mini carrots, your yogurt.  It’s better for the earth in terms of the reduction of pesiticides, and believe it’s better for my health because it makes sense to me that these pesticides bioaccumulate in our bodies, causing sickness (of course, not many studies have been done on this because studies are funded by companies and organizations that don’t want you thinking ’bout that, yo!). But “better” doesn’t make it “good.”

If you buy local, then you’re getting your pastoral fix in truth – the milk cow most likely did spend its days grazing on a big pasture and ate clover and bluegrass and much more than organic corn and soybeans, but you’re probably not going to see the organic seal of approval on anything local, as the term “organic” has come to mean something really different than what it once meant.  Getting the organic label is usually not something affordable for small scale farmers. Ever hear the phrase “know your farmer”?  This is why.

Your local farms very likely might be more organic in their practices than the big Earthbound farms  -check the sticker next time you’re in Safeway.  If it’s grown in the US and it’s organic and at a Safeway, it probably says “Earthbound Farms” on it – but there’s no way of knowing if they used pesticides or GMOs or antibiotics or rGBH without asking them.  I’m teaching a class in food politics next fall (“Food: The Politics, Safety, and Science of What We Eat”.  It’s actually a sophomore comp class with a focus), and Pollan’s fascinating read is going to be one of my two texts.

Moving to Barrow, Alaska, a place where Inupiats have subsisted on caribou, whale meat and seal oil since they settled there, is going to be a harrowing experience for this mostly vegetarian.  I say “mostly” because – full disclosure – when marathon training, I will eat Alaska wild salmon once or twice a week.  Salmon helps my body recover faster, the AK fisheries are in good condition, and yeah.  Master of rationalization that I am, I will tweak my ethics to fulfill my dietary needs.  But I won’t eat caribou or muktuk or seal oil, and because I would rather eat big organic produce that are free from pesticides versus conventionally-grown produce dripping in them, food in Barrow is going to be an issue for me.

The 2 small groceries in Barrow do not carry organic anything, and the prices for the wilted-looking Romaine they do have is exponentially higher than what one expects a bag of lettuce to be, due to the high costs of refrigerated shipping.  In addition to subscribing to Full Circle, a CSA out of Washington that actually ships to Barrow, I’m going to need to get educated in indoor growing.

Yesterday at McGuckins, I spoke with several people in the gardening department about my idea for creating a living wall.  They were trying to turn me on to an Aerogarden, but when I explained what I’m facing, they understood that it wasn’t economically feasible, nor did it match the scale of what I’m hoping to produce.  We talked about hydroponics vs sub-irrigated planting systems, and I’m leading toward the latter due to low start-up costs, though shipping organic dirt will be no cheap feat, either.  Hydroponics means a bigger investment up front, and SIPs will have the continual cost of shipping up quality soil.  However, I think SIPs are more straight-forward and harder to screw up.  I always have an outdoor veg and flower garden, but if my indoor plants could talk… well, they can’t cuz I got them deaded.  It’s my understanding that much can go wrong with hydroponics.  I kind of like the DIY approach of SIPs, too, and it goes with my whole theme of getting my Laura Ingalls on – you know, the pioneer spirit and all that jazz.

I’d like something like this, but I’d settle for something like this.  🙂

Anyway, I’m getting educated about indoor gardening. The move might be in early April now versus May if my partner scores us a quonset hut this week.  Yep, I’m rooting for a quonset hut.  Just like when I moved to Fairbanks from Chicago in the early 90s and wanted a cabin with no running water, a la Northern Exposure, in Barrow, I want a quonset hut.

If you’re going to do something, then just do it all the way.

In the kitchen this week, I’ve got a few experiments ready:

1)I’m going to see how my food-processor does with sweet potatoes.  If it can slice nice rounds, I’m going to make some sweet potato chips with paprika and sea salt.  Once I get a dehydrator, I will be using it like gangbusters to make dried fruit and veggie snacks.  Can’t wait.

2) Fruit roll-ups.  I bought 3C of frozen mango and raspberries yesterday at Whole Foods, and I’m going to puree them and try some fruit roll-ups in the oven at 170F.  It should take 8 hours, so that will be great if that works.  A cheap and easy snack.

3) Take 2 on the Flatiron Foodies Bee Bar that I fell in love with in January but can’t afford unless I find a pirate’s treasure.  I got some more of the ingredients I need – the flavor I’m attempting is the curried cocoa pistachio.  I bought a real one, too, so I can do a taste test.

I’ll post pics of my experiments as I make them.  And now I’m off to spend a couple hours putting things in boxes.