No chocolate. No bananas. No beer. Not a single orange or a slice of bread. And worst of all, no cookies. At the start of my local-food eating challenge, I'm focusing on the have-nots rather than the haves.
For one week, I will only eat foods grown within a three-hour drive of Memphis. I will be a "locavore," which according to Wikipedia, is "someone who eats food grown or produced locally or within a certain radius such as 50, 100, or 150 miles."
Voted the New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of 2007, the "locavore" movement has gained popularity as a way to reduce the mileage from farm to plate, thus curbing one's carbon footprint. Produce also begins losing nutrients once it's plucked from the ground, so eating local means fresher, more healthful foods.
"Local food tastes better, and it's better for you," Melissa Peterson, editor of local food magazine Edible Memphis, tells me. "It supports local farm families and protects food diversity."
Though some locavores opt to eat within a very confined radius, such as the "100-mile diet" promoted by local-eating advocates Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon (read about it in their book Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally), my boundaries are determined by the availability of regionally produced tofu.
As a vegan, local beef from nearby M4-D Ranch or Neola Farms is out of the question. But fortunately, tofu and soy yogurt made from regional soybeans are available through Farm Soy in Summertown, Tennessee. It's about three hours from Memphis, but the tofu is available here at Fresh Market stores.
Other local staples include grits from Oxford, Mississippi's Delta Grind, wine made from homegrown grapes at Old Millington Winery, and a plethora of fresh produce from local farmer's markets.
I begin my challenge Friday morning with fried Delta Grind grits cakes. I allow for some "cheater" items — olive oil, salt, spices, coffee, and tea — so the grits are fried in oil and seasoned liberally with salt. After filling up, I head 35 miles northeast to Tyronza, Arkansas, where Jill and Keith Forrester of Whitton Flowers & Produce are busy preparing for the Saturday morning farmer's market in downtown Memphis.
Former schoolteachers, the Forresters gave up their education jobs to live off the land. "I asked Keith for 50 pounds of sunflower seeds and one pound of zinnia seeds for my birthday a few years ago," says Jill, as she leads me around the farm. "I planted them and they bloomed, but I didn't know what to do with them."
A neighbor suggested selling the flowers at the Agricenter Farmer's Market. The young couple gave the market a shot one Saturday and came home with $400.
"We got hooked on seed catalogs, and now we're able to support ourselves with what we grow," says Jill, pointing to a field of vegetables in their earliest stages of growth.
Tomatoes are tiny green stalks, and carrot tops barely peek from the ground like blades of grass. But a small hothouse is ripe with numerous varieties of baby lettuce and arugula, which the couple will be selling at the Memphis Farmers Market. I make a note to add baby lettuce to my mental shopping list.
I arrive at the Saturday market at Central Station at the indecent hour of 7:30 a.m. I usually hit the market around 11 a.m., and this time of year, that means coming home with one or two measly items.
Early spring produce is sparse, so a prompt arrival is key to ensuring I eat for the week to come. I have a stash of frozen local veggies and canned tomatoes from last season at home, thanks to my grandma, but I'm hoping for a nice haul of fresh produce.
Fortunately, I beat the crowds and lug home a mother lode of veggies: baby arugula, baby mesclun mix, squash, kohlrabi, French Breakfast radishes, Japanese turnips, green onion, baby bok choy, sugar snap peas, kale, broccoli, cabbage, an organic cucumber, organic strawberries, and (gasp!) early peaches from Jones Orchard in Millington. I also purchase some rainbow Swiss chard from Downing Hollow Farm in Olive Hill, Tennessee. Both former members of Memphis rock bands, Alex Greene and Lori Godwin-Greene moved to the country to take up farming. Now they grow heirloom tomatoes and all sorts of other vegetables to sell at the downtown market.
"There's so much more opportunity now to sell in the city, because people are starting to open their eyes to unsustainable corporate farming practices," Godwin-Greene says. "The small farm is dying out due to factory farming, and eating locally is a way to revitalize rural areas."
Ken and Freida Lansing own Windermere Farms, a small farm in Raleigh where they're currently growing juicy organic strawberries. People can pick their own on-site or buy pre-picked berries at both the downtown market and the Memphis Botanic Garden's market. Later in the year, they'll have squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and other veggies.
"Growing and eating local foods helps to build the local economy," Lansing says. "And people can actually go out into the fields and see what's going on."
Throughout the week, the Lansings' berries provide a breakfast accompaniment to my soy yogurt, peaches, and toasted pecans from my uncle's pecan trees in Arkansas.
For dinner one night, I sauté Godwin-Greene's Swiss chard with Farm Soy tofu. Another night, I stir-fry bok choy, carrots, squash, and kohlrabi. Local foods keep me nourished throughout the week.
But I crave chocolate from day one, and the off-limits tortilla chips in my pantry laugh in my face every time I open the cabinet door. Other than raw veggies or fruit, there aren't many options in the "between meals" category. Giving up nonlocal foods is harder for me than giving up cheese when I went vegan three years ago.
But in the end, I know I've reduced my carbon footprint just a little bit more. I've also given one week's hard-earned grocery money to local farmers rather than corporate supermarkets. And that feels (and tastes) pretty darn good.
• Memphis Farmers Market
Saturdays, through October, 7 a.m.-1 p.m.
Central Station Pavilion, Front Street at G.E. Patterson
• Memphis Botanic Garden
Wednesdays, through October, 2-6 p.m.
Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry
• Agricenter International
Mondays-Fridays, through fall, 7:30 a.m.-
5:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Agricenter International, 7777 Walnut Grove (757-7777)
Community Supported Agriculture:
Join these programs and receive a weekly share of the participating farm's harvest.
• Whitton Flowers & Produce
Offering 10-week subscriptions: July 12th-September 13th, or September 20th-November 22nd; $100-$250.
• Downing Hollow Farm
$100 per week; subscriptions are filled, but interested persons may sign a waiting list.
• Delta Grind
Grits, corn meal, and polenta available at Miss Cordelia's Neighborhood Grocery
(737 Harbor Bend).
• Farm Soy Tofu
Available at Fresh Market
(835 S. White Station; 9375 Poplar)
• Old Millington Winery
"Crying Angel" red table wine is produced from homegrown grapes.
6748 Old Millington (873-4114)
• Windermere Farms
Pick your own produce.