The tables at our local farmers’ markets are full of the bounty of the fall harvest, but the chilly winds and the occasional showers remind all of us that we are inexorably marching toward winter. Here on the Mendocino Coast, our wet winter weather makes gardening and farming difficult at best, and next to impossible in some locations. Those of us who produce and consume local food are challenged to find locally grown vegetables through the long slow season. I picked up a flat of San Marzano tomatoes that will finish ripening in my warm pantry and then be processed into the rich red sauce that my Italian grandmother used to make. There is something vaguely comforting about seeing the rows of jars line the shelf, each containing a taste of sunshine at its heart.
This year, the potent storm of economic uncertainty hovers on the horizon. A friend’s mother tells stories of growing up on a truck farm in southern California’s Riverside County during the Great Depression. She says that the family always had enough to eat, because they usually couldn’t sell all the vegetables they produced. She told of stewed tomatoes served over baking powder biscuits, a fond memory of a supper long passed, and we all wonder what we will face in the coming winter months. A chef friend of mine calls it “chipmunking,” the storing away of food and supplies in anticipation of scarcity. Today, more than ever, I consider all the sources of food inside that magical circle of our local economy. Ours is an economically challenged community, and many food choices are driven by price alone. In Mendocino County, our average wage is well below that which would support the purchase of a median priced home. The hospitality, fishing and forestry jobs that remain here are largely seasonal, so winter affords little in the way of luxury here.
In these lean times, our focus turns to economics on a smaller scale. How do we create a sustainable local food system? How much can be produced here, and which goods must come from farther away? With transportation costs spiraling out of control, what is the true cost of the cheap foods we have become accustomed to in our sprawling industrial food system? As Americans, we have become spoiled by too many choices. I remember returning to California from my first trip to the Italian countryside. I wandered the well stocked aisles of the supermarket and my head literally ached from the overwhelming quantity of food and other goods. As we drove past an auto mall the other day in Santa Rosa, I was struck by the absurdity of the rows and rows of gleaming automobiles, not unlike the rainbow of jars, bottles, bags and boxes that line the supermarket shelves. I longed for the simplicity of the small grocers and itinerant street markets of rural Tuscany. Even without all of this bounty, I never felt that my choices were in any way limited. In fact, the opposite was true. The robust porcini mushrooms; only eight or so in the box, would be sold out by day’s end, and that somehow made them more precious. Anything I would cook using them would be a celebration of their fleeting seasonality.
Many philosophical traditions talk of “daily bread,” the idea of having what we need as opposed to what we desire. I realize that, while there is comfort in knowing that the freezer and the pantry are filled to bursting, there is also a comfort in the simplicity of having only to focus on today. Today, I will not worry about the global economy. I choose not to ruminate on whether the shelves of the supermarket will be full or empty in the coming months. I choose to celebrate the abundance of the harvest and eat well today, with an abiding gratitude for what I have.