Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sinful Lettuce?

Can lettuce be sinful?  What if you eat it at a Quaker retreat?

I was at Woolman Hill this past weekend, a beautiful antique farmhouse and outbuildings operated by local Quakers for various retreats.  They're quite eco-conscious, with many reminders about conserving heat and electricity, and carefully planned low-waste meals with vegetarian options on everything.

It was a wonderful retreat.  (In between spiritual challenges, I even got in a bit of snowshoeing with friends in the sub-zero cold.)  And as usual, the food was amazing.

And... sinful.  I felt downright odd about the daily offerings of salad, grapefruit, and oranges!  I did eat them, however, and they were delicious!  Particularly since Peter and I have been slipping gently ever-deeper into a locally and seasonally-based diet.

Oh, we eat salads--of shredded cabbage, cold-stored carrots, and sprouts from the windowsill.  (Our indoor lettuce in the window-boxes, after a long hiatus, seems to be growing again, too.)  And lately, since attending the local Winterfare sponsored by our community's branch of CISA, we've had the most amazing winter keeping radishes to add as well.

But fresh greens?  Citrus?  It felt scandalous.  (And, as I said, tasted delicious.)

I don't mean to imply that I have room to criticize Woolman Hill.  Given the number of people who pass through their doors--many of them clearly with carbon footprints far less than mine--they do a wonderful job balancing out the ethics of environmentalism with the economics of staying available as a resource.  I'm not trying to imply anything else.

But I really was struck by how established my habit of local and seasonal produce has become.  A year ago, I would have thought it silly to hesitate over a bowl of greens.  This year, while I did enjoy them as a treat, I'm too aware of the cost to the earth of even organically raised winter lettuce and greens to buy them in a store.  (Virtually all organic lettuce sold in the winter, according to Michael Pollan of The Omnivore's Dilemma, is grown in Arizona--and not only is there a large carbon footprint involved in shipping the greens to us across country, but the land there is so unsuitable for such agriculture that all the organic inputs--manure and compost--must be trucked in at a distance too.  Moreover, the intense industrial scale of this "organic" agriculture is helping to drain the aquifer--a truly non-renewable resource.)

I'm not saying this in order to be self-righteous, actually.  I'm commenting on it because eating what's in season and what's sustainable has turned out to be so easy to do that I now do it without a second thought.

It's the deviations from that rule that make me think twice now.

I'm sure there are a thousand things that I'm doing, even now, that are not in the planet's best interest.  But I am encouraged that change doesn't actually hurt, once you find a way to make it.  And I'm looking forward to more of it.

(And, OK, yeah.  I'm also looking forward to the breaks and treats--like this weekend's citrus and salads--when they come.  Because they will be treats, and not thoughtless squanderings.)


  1. I'm from Texas, and I was momentarily very confused! For us, oranges and greens ARE seasonal winter produce. We aren't as arid as Arizona, but our winter is very mild. Many of us grow greens in our backyards in the winter, and oranges are cheap and plentiful at this time of year. I suppose if I were buying my greens at the store it would be different, but my neighbors have plenty of spinach and kale.

  2. Hey, Katie,
    That's wonderful! And definitely an advantage to living someplace warmer than New England... though, as a friend pointed out to me, I live where maple syrup is a local food!

    I'm not a purist when it comes to local food myself. They'll pry my chocolate and coffee out of my cold, dead fingers one day, but til then, some non-regional foodstuffs are in my pantry to stay! Others seem sensible to me--like rice, which ships dry and (assuming it is grown sustainably--a big if, admittedly) does not have to have a massive impact on the environment for me to enjoy it thousands of miles away from its point of origin.

    But some foods are finding their way out of my pantry: any meat from a CAFO, out-of-season goodies (for my region) like lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and so forth, and exotics (for my region) like kiwi fruit or coconuts.

    The more I learn about the impact of my diet on my planet, the less it seems worth it to me, to ignore the costs of importing such environmentally expensive foods to my kitchen in winter.

    Of course, some regions offer a lot more fresh food year round. How nice! Happily, though, I'm learning that I don't need to feel deprived, even here in frosty New England, if I eat more seasonally and locally. It turns out that our grandmother's food-keeping wisdom works pretty well: when I asked my husband last night if he was feeling deprived, with all the changes in our diet this winter, he asked, "What changes?" He's been happy enough with what I've been feeding him that he didn't even notice!

    To me, that's remarkable. A child of supermarket convenience, I'd never have believed that it was a simple to adapt to a more earth-friendly way of life as it has been, so far. How about that?

  3. I'm also in the snow covered northeastern US, but some of our local farmers have found ways to grow things sheltered from the winter. At my local farmer's market, I can get fresh greens from Slack Hollow Farm http://www.slackhollowfarm.com/about.htm, and tomatoes from Shushan Valley Hyrdro Farm http://www.shushanvalleyhydrofarm.com/.

  4. Hey, Evergreen
    I respect local farms finding ways to increase their profit margins--staying in business at all isn't easy for small farmers. And fresh greens and tomatoes are very exciting to eat in the winter, of course. I know when our CSA Farm offered an "open house" a few weeks ago, I hesitated a long time over some enticing, though pricey, hothouse lettuce they had.

    Like my "sinful lettuce" from the retreat though, I suspect they're better as the occasional sweet indulgence; even though they're local, such delights do suck down a certain amount of fuel in order to heat their greenhouses. Tomatoes would, anyway.