A Local Food Feast
For the first time in my three years living in Vancouver, I was able to return for (American) Thanksgiving to my hometown of Pullman, in southeastern Washington. Every year, my family does a big Thanksgiving dinner at our house or at the affectionately named “Cooley Gulch Farms”. Jim and Zoe Cooley, who are like grandparents to me and my brother, live on 100 acres outside of Troy, Idaho, about 30 miles southeast of where we live. For us, Thanksgiving involves two things: lots of food cooked by too many people shoved into a too-small kitchen, and some sort of rigorous outdoor activity, like moving an outhouse or herding geese.
Splitting along traditional gender lines, my father and brother took on the task of knocking a few large broken limbs out of the enormous locust tree in our front yard while my mother decided to put a little spin on the cooking: we would attempt to make our meal from as much locally grown and processed food as possible. How local? We decided not to impose a limit like the 100-mile diet but simply to get as many things as possible as locally as possible. In an attempt to not alienate of our guests, we informed everyone of the plan and encouraged but didn’t require everyone to join in. The Palouse, the region of fertile rolling hills where Pullman is located, is the Dry Pea and Lentil Capital of the World (seriously—friends of ours in Pakistan confirmed that the lentils eaten there are actually grown here) and we host the Lentil Festival every August. We feed the world, so it shouldn’t be that hard to get locally produced stuff in town, right?
Wrong. A lot of the foods we couldn’t find locally were exactly those the Palouse is known for producing. We managed, however, to find a lot from the Palouse and Seattle (which we consider local as my brother Wes and his girlfriend Jess live there and personally transported the Westside goods across the state). The following list details our triumphs and failures in creating this local food feast and will hopefully give inspiration and ideas to other local foodies.
Wheat: Every Pullman kid knows about wheat. We can tell the difference between wheat and barley when we drive past a field and at least a third of the students at the high school miss a few days for harvest. But most of the wheat we grow is soft white wheat used primarily for Asian noodles, not bread flour. We send nearly all of our wheat down the Snake River to the Columbia and then across the ocean to Japan. There used to be a mill called Flourgirls in the Palouse that milled local wheat into flour, but as it’s been defunct since I was a kid, I remember it only by my mother’s Flourgirls apron. Now there’s Shepherd’s Grain, milled near Spokane, WA, 80 miles north, but we weren’t able to acquire it. There’s also the Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, in Bellingham, WA, which mills locally grown grain as much as possible. But we ended up using flour that was in our flour bin at home.
Canola Oil: You can tell a field of rape, the plant used to make canola oil, because it’s completely bright yellow when in bloom. There are many such fields in the Palouse, but I have no idea where we send the rape to be processed, or where it goes when it has become oil. There are certainly no canola processing facilities in the area. Spectrum, a brand of oil we often buy, says their rape comes from Northern US and Canada. Their processing facility is in California.
Sugar: It turns out that White Satin (an East Coast brand) Western Family, and Parade brand sugars are all processed by the Snake River Sugar Company, with plants in Idaho and Oregon, all from regional sugar beets. Maybe using processed white sugar isn’t the most environmentally friendly (or personally healthy) thing to do—using a local honey might have been better. But beet sugar is an improvement over cane sugar—better for the environment in lots of ways, good for the economy in Idaho, and also completely vegetarian. As a vegetarian for purely gastronomical reasons, I’m not too concerned about hidden animal products, like the fish bladders used to clarify Guinness, or the bone char used to whiten cane sugar, but I’m happy to avoid connections with the meat industry whenever possible.
Turkey: We didn’t do as well on the turkey as we might have been able to. The Cooleys raise turkeys some years but not this one. Our friends the Moffetts, physiologists at Washington State University in Pullman who have an organic farm and vineyard in Wawawai Canyon (about 20 miles from Pullman near the Snake River), raised turkeys only to have 21 out of 32 killed by a bobcat this year. Our turkey came from California, and was not injected with excess junk like most Thanksgiving turkeys are. We didn’t have the traditional condiment cranberry sauce, but I think because everyone forgot, not because cranberries aren’t local—lots are grown in southeastern Washington. Zoe did bring homemade, homegrown jam.
Apples: I made an apple tart with apples produced by our very own tree and the trees at the Washington State University orchards.
Garlic, Onions, Potatoes, and Other Veggies: Locally grown from the Palouse and a Community Supported Agriculture project in the Seattle area.
Butter and Milk: There used to be a dairy in Pullman called Stratton’s, but it is no longer, so we got our dairy from the Tillamook creamery in Oregon, and from Organic Valley. Organic Valley is a cooperative that has some farmers in the Northwest, but there’s no guarantee about where our milk actual came from.
Ice Cream: We made some ice cream ourselves with the aforementioned milk and sugar in our old-fashioned hand-crank ice cream maker. We also had ice cream from Ferdinand’s, the WSU creamery. They raise dairy cows to produce ice cream and cheese, but the milk itself isn’t available to the public. I don’t know where the other ingredients for the ice cream came from, but I’m guessing not local.
Eggs: Eggs from Albion, WA, about 5 miles outside of Pullman. They had beautiful brown, blue, and green shells.
Bread: Locally made bread from the Moscow Food Coop (Moscow is Pullman’s sister city across the border in Idaho, about 8 miles away). They recently switched from organic flour to local flour, which stirred up a bit of controversy.
Drinks: Local organic wine from Wawawai Canyon Winery, grown and bottled by our friends the Moffetts. Locally made beer from the Seattle area, brewed by the Pike Brewing Company and Hale’s Ale. Do they use local ingredients? Washington is first in the world for hops productions, so likely at least some of the ingredients are local. Odwalla brand cider, from the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon—not as local as it could have been. The coffee was roasted in Troy, Idaho, by a small company, but obviously not grown regionally. We had mint and lemon balm tea from our garden.
Herbs and Spices: Cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, and salt we struck out on. But we had homegrown sage, rosemary, and thyme (our parsley didn’t survive the frost), along with oregano from my amazing botanist mother. We also had pesto made from my mother’s garden basil and local garlic. The olive oil was probably from the Mediterranean, though there are quite a few producers in California, and one bottler in Coeur d’Alene, ID, about 90 miles north. The pine nuts and parmesan for the pesto weren’t local either.
Fennel Seeds: Inspired by the delicious Indian after-dinner custom of eating fennel we candied (with our Southern Idaho sugar) my mother’s and Jess’ homegrown fennel seeds to pass around with the desserts.
Items from Cooley Gulch Farms: The Cooleys are real-live do-it-yourself kind of people. They raise their own crops and livestock, built their own house, have their own sawmill, have a composting toilet, cook in an outdoor kitchen during the summer to keep the house cool, and own a hybrid. These people were back to the land before it was cool, and continue because it’s the way they do things, not because it’s a fad. Instead of her usual rolls, Zoe brought cornbread, since they grow and grind their own corn, whereas they mill but don’t grow their wheat. She also brought a pumpkin pie and a green bean casserole, made entirely with ingredients they raised themselves (with a little bit of Tillamook cheese).
Our other guests did try to work within the theme, bringing homegrown squash and purchasing ingredients at the Co-op, which sells a lot of local foods, and where the money stays local too. The Co-op also pays their employees a decent wage in a state where the minimum is $5.85.
All in all, I would say about 40% of our food was produced locally and purchased directly from the producer or through a local business. Another 20% was local but purchased through a corporation, whereas 20% was produced or purchased locally, but was made from non-local ingredients. The last 20% was not local. I give our feast an A-minus for effort and a B for execution. We could have done plenty more to have local food, but we worked hard within our own boundaries. The Cooleys get an A-plus, because they do this everyday.
With our traditional tree local from Cooley Gulch Farms, it only makes sense to local-food-it-up for Christmas too. In many cases, it’s not difficult to find local alternatives to the food we eat, but to go fully local, we will have to change some of our eating habits. To improve our efforts, I think we need to focus on making the food we cook match what we produce locally instead of making what we produce locally match our traditional foods—though I have no plans to cancel my annual (and generally anticipated) Bûche de Noël, which requires tropical ingredients like coffee, rum, and about two pounds of chocolate.