How I Went Local for Holiday Dinner
For Thanksgiving this year, I took it upon myself to find a local, heritage breed turkey as my contribution to my family’s dinner. Local is my job, after all! So I did a quick search for ‘turkey’ on Good Food Finder, and I was surprised how many farms and ranches in my great state of Arizona raised quality, often pasture-raised and antibiotic, hormone free turkeys. I placed my order online several weeks ahead, and the week before Thanksgiving I joined a crowd of 20 or so other anxiously awaiting locavores in an empty parking lot just up the street from my Phoenix home. An extra-large rented moving truck pulled up where we met the rancher’s young sons and loads of coolers filled with pasture raised turkey, beef, pork, and chicken. I was ecstatic and proud to bring a local turkey to dinner, until it donned on me that virtually everything else on the table came from the mega-super-discount-buying-club store I will refer to as ‘Cheap-O’s’. It’s so easy, they carry it all at Cheap-O’s, including premade pumpkin pie, spinach dip, and cornbread stuffing in a box. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What exactly was the point in bringing a local turkey?” At least I was able to make an incredible cranberry sauce with chiltepin peppers, but where did all the other dishes' ingredients come from? The answer, unfortunately, was either far away from Arizona (try Australia!) or from ‘origin not otherwise specified’.
I follow the prescription for being a locavore, shopping at farmers’ markets and paying attention to labels. Everywhere I shop, whether at home in Phoenix or when I’m traveling, I seek out local brands and specialties. Like Mark Twain, I attempt to know a place by eating and drinking like the locals. I wanted to share with my family this experience of knowing a place through its seasonally available local produce and cuisine. There is no better way to know Arizona than to eat a traditional Arizona holiday meal. For Christmas, it was my turn to plan and shop and decide upon our dinner menu. The green chile harvest in southern New Mexico just came to a close, and a friend of mine brought me several pounds of fresh roasted green chile. Ok, that's more regional than local, but New Mexico is my second home and anyways this sounded to me like a great place to start planning the menu.
I decided on green chile chicken tamales, green chile brisket tacos, ranch beans, rice, salsa verde, bacon wrapped jalapeños, and margaritas. My next step was to determine what was in season and what I could find locally. I made out a grocery list based on all my recipes. I found information about what’s currently growing by using a harvest calendar. Again I used Good Food Finder and also consulted the Local First Arizona business directory. I couldn’t believe I was able to find almost everything I needed.
I was able to order online from go lb. salt (bacon and rim salt) and Walking J Farm (ham hock and brisket) to pick up at the Gilbert Farmers Market and the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, respectively. I looked up the market websites to see what other vendors would be there with a special lookout for some producers I had identified on Good Food Finder and the LFA directory. The Saturday before Christmas I headed out early in the morning to make it to both markets. At the Downtown Phoenix Public Market I picked up a whole chicken from Double Check Ranch, I visited the Maya’s Farm booth for tomatillos and i'itoi onions, I went to Crooked Sky Farms for dried pinto beans, cilantro, and Glendale gold onions, and I was able to find jalapeños at the market community table. I had such a good time shopping and talking with farmers, I lost track of time and was unable to make it out to Gilbert in time before the market closed. Since I already placed an order and paid online, the owner of go lb. salt called me personally and let me know that we could arrange to meet in Phoenix the next day so I could get the bacon and margarita salt. Christmas was saved!
The first thing anyone brought up when I told them I was planning an all local holiday dinner was, “Isn’t that going to be expensive?” Not exactly. When we shop at stores like Cheap-O’s, the price of food is not telling us the whole truth. Farm subsidies, cheap labor, and pollution often associated with industrial agriculture often offer cheaper prices upfront but create greater costs for us in the long run. We buy cheap food now, then pay taxes to cover healthcare and other social services for employees and farm laborers that do not earn a living wage, and we pay more taxes for environmental preservation. It seems like it’s cheaper to buy Twinkies than it is to buy carrots, but we eventually pay for it with labor exploitation, diet-related diseases, environmental degradation, and our own health. Local farmers often use more sustainable growing practices so they can offer healthier food for us and the environment. And when we buy local food directly from the producer, they keep far more of the food dollar than when we buy from Cheap-O’s. That means their workers earn a fair wage and those local food dollars keep circulating in the local economy.
Seeing how important it was to me, my family even agreed to cover the cost of all the local ingredients I bought. I was told there was no need for me to make dessert because they wanted to buy a big chocolate cake from Cheap-O’s. I know how to choose my battles, so I agreed, feeling that I was making progress being able to source the rest of the meal locally. I arrived the night before Christmas Eve to begin the long tamale process. I had already roasted the chicken, removed all the meat, and added it to the salsa verde I made. The next morning we started early cooking the pinto beans with onion, jalapeño, and ham hocks and oven-smoking the brisket for the tacos. We then started preparing the bacon wrapped jalapeños but instead of using the go lb. salt bacon I purchased, mom pulled out a package of premade bacon from Cheap-O’s and said it was just much easier than cooking it fresh. A minor loss for team local, but I wasn’t going to give up yet. While cooking we talked about how local tastes better, but convenience and cost often trumps taste and preference. I shared all the other benefits of eating local and was happy at least to spark the conversation.
Once all the siblings and in-laws arrived, I made up a pitcher of margaritas with fresh squeezed lime juice. Mom wanted to use the premade mixer you buy in a huge gallon from Cheap-O’s, but I insisted that we had to treat the local rim salt with respect. I bought the Santa Fe Rita Rim Lick from go lb. salt and it did not disappoint. Everyone agreed (even mom!) that this was the best margarita they ever had. The real moment of truth came when it was time to eat. I was frying up tacos to order while everyone was filling their plates. By the time I made my own plate and sat at the table, everyone was oohing and awing, some already getting up to get seconds. “You really got all of these ingredients locally? I didn’t know Arizona had such great food!” I had promised several of my friends that I would save them a tamale, but by the end of the night we had eaten all three dozen that were made. My one brother loved the beans so much, declaring that they are often the best and yet forgotten part of the meal, that he took all the leftovers home with him. My parents were so in love with the tacos that they kept all the brisket. I ended up going home with nothing more than satisfaction and a few huge pieces of Cheap-O’s chocolate cake because after dinner no one even wanted dessert.