Excerpt: The 100-Mile Diet

Read an excerpt from new book The 100-Mile Diet, our Canadian Living Book Club pick for June.

By Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon

Excerpt: The 100-Mile Diet: 1 of 2

Read an interview with the authors.

March
Man is born free and everywhere is in chain stores.
-- Graffiti

The year of eating locally began with one beautiful meal and one ugly statistic.

First, the meal. What we had on hand, really, was a head of cabbage. Deep inside its brainwork of folds it was probably nourishing enough, but the outer layers were greasy with rot, as though the vegetable were trying to be a metaphor for something. We had company to feed, and a three-week-old cabbage to offer them.

It wasn't as though we could step out to the local megamart. We -- Alisa and I -- were at our "cottage" in northern British Columbia, more honestly a drafty, jauntily leaning, 80-year-old homestead that squats in a clearing between Sitka spruce and western redcedar trees large enough to crush it into splinters with the sweep of a limb. The front door looks out on a jumble of mountains named after long-forgotten British lords, from the peaks of which you can see, just to the northwest, the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle. There is no corner store here. In fact, there is no electricity, no flush toilet, and no running water but for the Skeena River rapids known as the Devil's Elbow. They're just outside the back door. Our nearest neighbour is a black bear. There are also no roads. In fact, the only ways in or out are by canoe, by foot over the distance of a half-marathon to the nearest highway, or by the passenger train that passes once or twice a day, and not at all on Tuesdays. So: We had a cabbage, and a half-dozen mouths to feed for one more autumn evening. Necessity, as they say, can be a mother.

I can't remember now who said what, or how we made the plan, or even if we planned it at all. What I know is that my brother David, a strict vegetarian, hiked to the mouth of Fiddler Creek, which straight-lines out of a bowl of mountains so ancient they make you feel perpetually reborn, and reeled in an enormous Dolly Varden char. Our friends Kirk and Chandra, who are the sort of people who can tell a Bewick's wren from a rufous-crowned sparrow by ear, led a party into the forest and returned with pound upon pound of chanterelle, pine, and hedgehog mushrooms. I rooted through the tall grass to find the neglected garden plot where, months earlier, we had planted garlic and three kinds of potato; each turned up under the spade, as cool and autonomous as teenagers. Alisa cut baby dandelion leaves, while her mother picked apples and sour cherries from an abandoned orchard, and rosehips from the bushes that were attempting to swallow the outhouse. The fruit we steeped in red wine -- all right, the wine came from Australia. Everything else we fried on the woodstove, all in a single huge pan.

It was delicious. It was a dinner that transcended the delicate freshness of the fish, the earthy goodness of the spuds that had sopped up the juices of mushrooms and garlic. The rich flavours were the evening's shallowest pleasure. We knew, now, that out there in the falling darkness the river and the forest spoke a subtle language we had only begun to learn. It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers. One of the night's final questions, passed around upon faces made golden by candlelight: Was there some way to carry this meal into the rest of our lives?

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