This is the second post in the thematic series that I launched earlier this year, where each post is devoted to my observations/reflections about a certain aspect of life in the Methow. Here is the first post in the series.
As we near the Thanksgiving holiday, with its lavish feasting to the point of overindulgence, food is on many Americans’ minds. Meal planning, recipe reading, grocery shopping, cooking, and baking are all happening at a frenetic pace in households across the country. While we have no Thanksgiving plans this year and will likely be spending the holiday by ourselves, with minimal cooking involved, I thought this would be a fitting opportunity to collect some of the food-related impressions from our 10 months in the Methow Valley.
The first thing that came to mind as I typed that opening paragraph was, food is expensive around here. Before moving to this area, I’d only ever lived in big American cities, and I assumed that in a small town, groceries, and most other things, would be cheaper because people made less money, so had less to spend. While the part about making less money turned out to be true, the part about food costing less did not, for the most part.
I love our local supermarket. It’s cozier and less overwhelming than the Safeways and QFCs in Seattle; the grocery selection, while more limited than in an urban supermarket, is more than enough to suit my needs; the cashiers are friendly and helpful; and I run into someone I know almost every time I stop in. (And, hey, it’s full of taxidermied African wildlife!) But, man, are the prices high. Most things cost at least 25-50% more than in Seattle, and some cost up to twice as much.
The same goes for the local natural/gourmet grocery store. Usually I describe it to Seattle friends as a mini-PCC, with higher prices. I love shopping there: lingering outside the door to browse the flyers pinned to the bulletin board; chatting with the cheerful women who work at the store; stocking up on fragrant bulk teas and spices, as well as local flour for my baking; and picking up a special treat like chocolate-covered ginger or coconut-mango chews or some exotic crackers or an interesting yogurt once in a while. But, even though I strictly ration my visits and pare down my shopping list, these visits still leave a pretty substantial dent in our budget.
What really helps is when our supermarket has sales, or when they mark down products that are close to or just past their sell-by date. Just in the past week, I’ve picked up a big bunch of organic grapes, a good-sized bag of white mushrooms, and a 32-oz container of brand-name Greek yogurt, for only a dollar each. The Seattle supermarkets where I used to shop would not be able to match these deals. So, while I do come into the store with a list of needed items, I also make sure to scan the shelves for those orange stickers. Some days, the stickered items are what’s for dinner.
What also helps is being able to buy certain kinds of food directly from those who grow it. For example, we buy ground beef and ground pork from a local family that runs a small ranch. I can see their cows grazing as I drive up to the owners’ house to pick up my order. As it turns out, for ranchers to be able to sell meat directly to consumers, bypassing the grocery store, they have to sell no less than 20 lbs per person. Some months, it can be hard to come up with the cash needed to be able to buy in bulk; however, at $2.50/lb for beef and $3/lb for pork, it is more than worth it.
The last batch of ground beef lasted us – that is, my husband and our dog, as I am a vegetarian – more than 6 months; and we still have a few packages of the ground pork purchased in May in the freezer. Even the cheapest, lowest-quality meat in Seattle would cost normally cost more, and the kind of high-quality, humanely raised, pastured meat that I buy from Bill and Sue would be several times as expensive. At some point during our life in Seattle, we decided to buy only free-range, preferably organic, meat, and because it was so pricey, my husband had to limit his meat consumption pretty significantly. Mostly, we bought chicken at Trader Joe’s ($1.99/lb for organic, free-range drumsticks). Now, he can feel good about eating beef and pork again, and our dog is pretty happy too.
In addition to meat, I’m finding local sources for produce. There is, of course, the bountiful farmer’s market in Twisp that runs 6-7 months a year, and the smaller one in Winthrop, but it tends to be less expensive to buy directly from farmers. Plus, sometimes the people who have fruit and vegetables for sale are not farmers per se, but simply local folks whose garden produces more than they can eat. They will often advertise their bounty on the local bulletin board, sometimes inviting people for a “u-pick” experience. I picked strawberries on a farm 5 miles down the highway in June, drove less than a mile from my office in July to buy apricots from a backyard tree, and, more recently, picked up 40 pounds of cabbage for a sauerkraut-making party we hosted at our house earlier this month (our share of the kraut is now in the fridge and it is delicious, crunchy and refreshing). The farmers’ market, too, has yielded some finds, most notably incredibly flavorful, heirloom-variety organic apples for only a dollar a pound.
Eggs are another dietary staple that I was fortunate enough to find not one but two amazing direct sources for. A woman living next to one of the Twisp Ponds raises ducks that lay extremely tasty eggs with a high yolk-to-white ratio and a rich, velvety taste, from February to June. That’s what I started out with when we first moved here. Once the ducks were done laying for the year, I switched to buying chicken eggs from a man who keeps a flock of about 30 hens, with a few roosters thrown in there for fun. I kept admiring his chicken coop surrounded by roaming chickens while driving past on the highway every day, until I finally worked up the courage to pull into his driveway and ask if he sold eggs. He did, and, like the duck eggs, they are also extraordinarily delicious and lend a beautiful, deep yellow hue to cake batter.
And, the value of freebies is not to be underestimated! In early summer, a local couple opened up their sour cherry trees for picking by all who wanted, at no charge. These tart little fruits are highly valued by Seattle foodies for pie-making and other projects and go for probably about $10-15/pound in the city. For me, this was more than I could afford, plus I always missed their short season anyway, so I only bought them once in Seattle, frozen, to test a recipe for a class I was preparing to teach. This year, in the Methow, free, freshly-picked sour cherries offset the sweetness of my morning oatmeal; mingled with walnuts and dark chocolate in my improvised snack-time yogurt parfaits; and lent a nice tang to muffins and scones. I am saving the very last batch in the freezer for a special baking project.
And, for the past several weeks, we’ve been crossing the road to pick extremely sweet, fragrant, brightly colored apples (I think they might be Fujis) from a big, old tree on the edge of our neighbors’ property. Mostly, we’ve been eating them out of hand, but I’ve managed to use them for baking, with some success, by mixing diced or grated apples with a bit of citric acid to make up for the lack of tartness.
Last – and, in this case, least – we did attempt to grow some of our own food this year. We had a plot in a community garden in Seattle for several years, and my husband used to help his parents and grandparents with their kitchen gardens back home when he was younger, so we thought we were pretty well-equipped to plant a garden in the Methow. However, we got a late start, had limited space for a garden, and found ourselves contending with a new climate and new pests. In Seattle, slugs probably did the most damage to our crops; here, it was – surprise, not even deer, but pack rats. On top of all this, we left town for over 8 weeks during peak growing season. When we returned, the tomato plants on our deck were wilted beyond recognition, with no fruit in sight; I’m not sure if they shriveled into oblivion without water in 100-degree weather or if the pack rats got them. Still, thanks to our landlord, who watered our two raised beds while we were gone, we ended up with a bounty of multicolored Swiss chard and a decent crop of smallish but tasty potatoes in yellow, purple, and red.
Overall, even with the sales at the store, the “farm-to-table” buying, the occasional freebies, and our gardening attempts, we probably do spend more on food here than we did back in Seattle. But we also eat better, healthier, and more in tune with the seasons. A larger percentage of our food is raised right where we live. And, while we do pick up favorites like dried mango and chocolate bars at Trader Joe’s and stock up on cheap brie, olive oil, and organic sugar at Costco when we are in the city, for the most part our money goes to the local farmers, ranchers, and shopkeepers instead of the large grocery manufacturers and supermarket chains. A win-win, in my book.