(Photo provided by Sandy Bottoms)
I have a confession. I’m already thinking about the holidays. I know it’s only October, and I am usually first in line to object to ridiculously premature holiday talk. I’m still not ready to think about Santa Claus and candy canes when I still have Halloween candy to pass out. But Thanksgiving? I can definitely think about Thanksgiving.
A few years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. One of my favorite traditions in the Urban and Environmental Planning Department was our “Hundred-Mile Thanksgiving.” The annual event was inspired by the book The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, the story of a couple who attempted to tackle a major issue in our modern food system on the smallest scale possible: by changing their own behavior. Upon learning that food, on average, travels 1,500 miles from farm to consumer, they challenge themselves to eat only foods grown and produced within 100 miles of their apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia.
At UVa, we took on that hundred-mile challenge in the form of a mid-November potluck. Students and faculty were encouraged to contribute a dish that was “as local as possible,” in which the majority of the ingredients were sourced from within a 100-mile radius of Charlottesville. We used the Thanksgiving event as an excuse to plan several extracurricular field trips to learn more about food production in central Virginia – we visited an apple festival, a mill, a slaughterhouse/butcher and a sustainable livestock farm (where we picked up our pasture-fed turkeys for the potluck). We also planned a canning event to make and preserve applesauce for our upcoming dinner.
Incorporating local foods into your Thanksgiving feast can be a fun, educational challenge. Some tips:
• Get creative with your menu. Focus on ingredients that are easy to find locally in the fall – eggs, sweet potatoes, kale, herbs, butternut squash, turnips, pumpkins, apples and meats, for instance.
• Substitute ingredients. No, you won’t find sugar cane within a 100 miles of Central Kentucky, but you can find local honey.
• Shop as early as possible. Some items will become sparse as late November approaches, and some produce, such as squash, onions, apples and sweet potatoes, can be stored for several weeks in a cool, dry place. Some poultry vendors may require you to reserve a turkey in advance due to seasonal demand.
Don’t be too strict – if you want cranberries, serve cranberries. And spices are nearly impossible to source locally. There’s no need to sacrifice flavor or tradition.
• If it’s not grown locally, maybe it’s processed locally. You won’t find a lot of wheat fields in Central Kentucky, but there are some working mills! Also consider including value-added items from local vendors – salsas, jams/preserves, breads and pickled vegetables are common farmer’s market finds.
• Don’t forget about wines, beers, and liquors. You can find those locally too!
• Use the search features at kyproud.com to find producers and retailers of local foods in your area. This is a great tool for finding specific items, such as dairy and poultry products.
My two local Thanksgivings at UVa taught me a lot about our nation’s food production system, which isn’t always efficient or sustainable. I also learned about seasonal eating, adaptation and, yes, cooking.
My final piece of advice is to incorporate tradition and personal history into your hundred-mile Thanksgiving. For example, my contribution to UVa’s 2009 Thanksgiving dinner was a mostly local sweet potato casserole… as well as a bottle of Jim Beam. This Kentucky girl wanted to share her hometown bourbon with her friends from the less fortunate, bourbon-deprived corners of the continent. After all, isn’t Thanksgiving all about fellowship and heritage?
Sandy Bottoms is grants administrator at Bluegrass PRIDE, where she oversees a series of small grants for environmental improvement and education projects in several Central Kentucky counties. She has a bachelor’s in geography from the University of Kentucky, as well as a master’s in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia. Before joining Bluegrass PRIDE, she worked with the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Contact Sandy at email@example.com.