A Grand Experiment (excerpt I)

January

Truth be told, my 11-year-old daughter has used the words icky and disgusting on several occasions, always in connection with root vegetables. Not potatoes, not carrots—but turnips, and parsnips, and rutabagas. It is a little hard to imagine how people got through winter on the contents of their root cellars alone.

Which is why I’m glad for the Ziplocs full of raspberries and blueberries my wife froze in the summer. And why…

I’m glad for the high-tech apple warehouse just down the road in Shoreham. Here’s the thing about apples: The best ones rot pretty fast. Sure, those brick-hard Red Delicious and Granny Smiths can be picked in New Zealand or South Africa or China or Washington and flown and trucked halfway around the world and sit on a shelf at the supermarket for a week and still look like an apple. (Taste is another story—they’ve been bred for immortality, and immortality alone.) But the great apples of the Northeast—your Cortland, your Empire, your Northern Spy, and, above all, your McIntosh—are softer, more ephemeral. For generations, people solved that problem by converting them to cider—hard cider, fermented for freezerless storage. That’s what most of those apple trees around New England were planted for. But there’s another solution if, like Barney Hodges, you have a storage shed where you can pump in nitrogen. “We push the oxygen level down from its normal twenty percent to just under three percent. The apple’s respiration is slowed to the point where the ripening process is nearly halted,” he explains. Every few weeks he cracks open another room in the warehouse, and it’s as if you’re back in September—the apples in his Sunrise Orchard bags head out to nearby supermarkets, where he frets that they won’t be kept cool.

Apples help illustrate another point, too: In the years ahead, local may be a more important word than organic in figuring out how to eat. In fact, a British study published this winter found that buying food from close to home prevented twice as much environmental damage as buying organic food from a distance.

Now, the best solution might be local and organic; most of the food I’ve been eating this winter falls into that category. But apples aren’t easy—an orchard is a monoculture, prey to a bewildering variety of insects and blights. And very few consumers, even at the natural foods co-op, will pick up a Macoun or a Paula Red if it’s clear that some other creature has taken the first nibble, so almost all the area growers do a little spraying. “How little spray can I get away with, and still produce fruit that people will buy?” asks Bill Suhr, who runs Champlain Orchards, down the road just above the Ticonderoga ferry dock. His saving grace is the cider press that’s clanking away as we talk: He can take the risk of using fewer chemicals because if the apples aren’t perfect, he can always turn them into cider. Absolutely delicious cider, too—I’ve been drinking well north of two gallons a week, and I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to orange juice. And each batch, because it draws on a slightly different mix of varieties, tastes a little different: tartest in early fall, sweetest and most complex at the height of the harvest, but always tangy and deep. It may not be organic, but it’s neighborly, which is good enough for me.

From Bill McKibbon‘s 2005 article outlining his experience eating very locally over a Winter. We’ll catch you up on the start of his adventures before we post the February excerpt.