Eating Locally

The do-it-yourself approach

For Vermont couple, homesteading provides meals to last year-round

By Darry Madden
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2008

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WESTMINSTER, Vt. - Angie Dodd started dinner early last spring.

It was then that the Vermont soil started to warm on her land near Putney, and she began planting the onions, carrots, peppers, black beans, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, cilantro, and other vegetables, fruits, herbs, and grains that now grace her midwinter table.

The old-fashioned word for this is homesteading. But it doesn't encompass all that it means to grow what you eat and to eat what you grow year-round. Or why one woman from Roxbury and another from California would opt to reverse their convenient, disposable, whatever-their-hearts-desire modern lives for the hard work of simplicity. Newlyweds Dodd, 37, and Adrienne DeGuevara, 36, didn't just wake up one morning, pronounce their house and garden a homestead, and banish themselves from the grocery store. "It was a slow process," says Dodd. "It still is." What's on this table has been grown on this land or a neighbor's. There are fewer and fewer trips to the local supermarket.

There was a moment when DeGuevara, putting up food in the kitchen, burst into tears when Dodd brought in yet more jalapeno peppers to process and preserve. There was another when an excited Dodd exclaimed, "I knew it! I knew there was a better way!" as she realized she could ferment food rather than can it. (Think sauerkraut or Korean kimchi, both of which are made by the ancient method of submerging raw food in a simple salt brine.)

Last year, they began growing grains and beans for storage. This year, the two erected a greenhouse, where arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, Swiss chard, kale, and mache grow strong even during short days.

Now snow covers the ground and the tidy kitchen pantry is lined with gallon jars of beans, oats, the grain amaranth, corn, pickled dilly beans, many different kinds of fermented vegetables, pesto hibernating in a bath of olive oil, crushed jalapenos preserved the same way. The root cellar is cold, but protected from below-zero temperatures outside. Potatoes, turnips, beets, daikon, and carrots slumber there. Braids of garlic and onions hang all over the house like art. Pumpkins and squashes threaten to trip you in the mudroom. The greenhouse is bursting with green. (Milk and eggs come from farms in the area.)

It started because the couple wanted a greater relationship with the food they ate. Dodd had moved to her family's property in Vermont as an adult, after having spent some formative years there. She loved being outside, and liked the work she did on Vermont farms when she was in her 20s, but noticed that, as a business, growing food became an ever increasing list of compromises with the modern world. Like using sheets of plastic as makeshift mulch to save time and money. Like the carbon footprint of driving food to and from markets. She was attracted to the scale and the sustainability of homesteading. "In homesteading, you can eat the [produce] with spots. It doesn't have to come in early. It doesn't have to go late," she says.

The two had the land, the skills, and, most importantly, the will to re-create a world before grocery stores.

This is not to say they don't go at all. There are still toilet paper, baking soda, oil, tea, and spices to buy, for example. "There has always been trade," says Dodd. The pair is serious about producing what they need, but not dogmatic.

In their household, DeGuevara is the unofficial head chef while working full time as a massage therapist and a plant spirit medicine practitioner in private practice in neighboring Putney. She had to relearn how to think about cooking and eating with the new foods in her pantry. It wasn't too hard - she was a whole-foods kind of girl going into it - but there is some adjusting to eating from the land.

Take their black beans. Using their dried beans requires planning, since they take a long time to cook - substantially longer than opening a can. Squash have a tendency to rot, and so they might be rushed onto a menu. And before they considered a bowl of oatmeal, they had to thresh the oats a bit more first, and grind the corn into meal before making polenta or corn bread. And when a fermented dish such as cortido, a kind of Latin American sauerkraut, is replacing fresh vegetables in your diet, how do you serve them?

As a result, their table holds rustic country fare, with the exotic touch of pickled condiments scattered about. Inarguably fresh, yet unusual, the menu is wholesome, creative, and a shining example of just how slow slow food can be.

One day, over a lunch of black bean soup, corn bread, squash, fermented garlic scapes, and endive salad, Dodd announces, "The problem with pasta is it's too delicious."

Pasta? How can its deliciousness be a problem?

Dodd elaborates. Foods like pasta are cheap, abundant, and tasty. We tend to shovel them in. Eating quickly, by definition, is not very thoughtful. And so it reinforces the easy disposability of the modern food supply.

The idea is not to forget where food comes from and how people ate when they lived closer to the land, she says. Dodd and DeGuevara, both enthusiastic and earnest, think that somehow that got lost. With their system of growing, putting up, fermenting, and consuming only what they have on hand, they're ever mindful of every single ingredient.

"How did this brainwashing happen that people forgot?" asks Dodd. "When we had these elegant, simple methods."