I'm learning that eating local turns the clock way back, as in transforming a 21st-century American consumer into a hunter-gatherer. Because, for the most part, you are not going to walk into a supermarket and pick up a chicken raised down the road. Or grab a half-gallon of milk produced at a nearby dairy.
But I also discovered there's a tribe out there, ready to come to your aid. “Come up to McClellanville and try the softshell crabs.” read one email. “We stock a Summerville beekeeper's honey,” came from Bartons/The Silver Puffin on King Street.
Sunday marked the first day of Eat Local Month, which the nonprofit organization Lowcountry Local First declared and is promoting in April. I was one who took the challenge, and now I'm finding out what it really means. Prepare not to be convenienced.
Making the commitment is one thing and actually doing it is another. Last week, after publicly announcing my decision, I was trying to tune out but kept returning to the “I'm going on a diet” mindset. There was a sense of mourning when eating foods like my adored avocado. Sorry, we can't be friends anymore. ... I hope you understand. I'm entering the convent.
Meanwhile, the left lobe of my brain was disco dancing, elated and charged with the idea of eating local. Ready to go wild, literally. Bring it on.
By Friday afternoon, I had to set out shopping for some basics or face failure on Sunday morning.
But the day before, some timely advice had been offered by Lisa Jones-Turansky, director of sustainable agriculture for the Coastal Conservation League. Last year, the league launched GrowFood Carolina, a wholesale operation that is hooking up small farmers in South Carolina with local restaurants and grocers.
Jones-Turansky told me: Don't head out with a shopping list, because you're not going to get everything you want. To eat local, you have to cook and prepare food with whatever ingredients are available. Be flexible. The meal planning I had assumed would be necessary really wasn't the right approach.
Still, there was a need to stock the pantry and fridge with some essentials. My first quest: milk.
Now, I am aware that there's a small but very loyal market for raw milk, which is unprocessed and unpasteurized. South Carolina is one of the states that permits the sale of such milk, but obtaining it is sort of like an underground operation. You have to know where to go, since state law limits the retail settings in which it's allowed.
So I set out for the barber shop.
That's right. Some years ago I had heard that a West Ashley barber shop sold raw milk. But I couldn't remember the name, only that it was along Savannah Highway.
First I pulled into St. Andrews shopping center after spotting the sign for Mooney's. When I walked in the shop, all the chairs were full and the stylists were snipping away. I saw nothing that indicated milk would be found here.
When one of the stylists asked, “Can I help you?” I felt like a deer in headlights. “Do you sell milk here?” I squeaked out, and by the looks on their faces, they thought I was a lunatic.
But right away, another stylist came to my rescue. “Oh, that's Geer's, down next to the UPS store.” Thank you very much, adios.
Geer's Barber Shop is in Stono Park Plaza. As soon as I opened the door, I saw the cooler and gallons and half-gallons of milk inside. Just like it was an everyday thing.
Shop owner Fred Geer said he started selling the milk four or five years ago. “It kind of fell in my lap,” he said, after Raspberry's health food store closed and the folks there asked Geer if he would take the milk part over. Now he sells about 130 gallons every two weeks.
Geer's milk comes from Peeler's Milky Way Farm in Starr, a town in Anderson County. It sells for $9.25 a gallon, which seems to be the going rate.
Geer said he may start selling raw milk that's a little closer to home: He's spoken to George and Celeste Albers on Wadmalaw Island, who bottle their milk under the Sea Island label. The Albers sell their milk at farmers markets and in limited retail outlets.
I did not buy Geer's milk, partly because I wasn't going straight home that day and didn't have a way to keep it cold. But I also knew that to be even more faithful to the eat local vow, that I would have to seek out the Albers' milk, which I did the next day.
So, by Sunday morning, I had local raw milk for my coffee (yes, Lowcountry Local First says Charleston-roasted coffee counts, though local tea will be drunk, too). I had heard that raw milk is an acquired taste, but I didn't find that to be true at all. It is sweet, creamy and mild. Quite delicious, in fact.
With Sunday being the first full day of the eat local pledge, how did I do? Not 100 percent, to be honest.
Well, I skipped breakfast — no local eggs today — to work in the garden before heading to Ambrose Farm's CSA picnic in the early afternoon.
The picnic was a potluck, so I had no way of knowing how much of the food was “local.” Even though the people there are clearly supporters of Community Supported Agriculture, it was clear that they don't cook local all the time, either. Some of the vegetables were out of season and there was at least one store-bought foam container of coleslaw on the table. Still, I tried to choose the things that had the greatest potential of being local, such as deviled eggs, beets, salad and red rice.
The meat was generously provided by Pete and Babs Ambrose. She said the chicken was from Chucktown Chicken in Georgetown and the turkey from Keegan-Filion Farm in Walterboro. The pork came from “off.”
But we left the picnic on a sweet local note, toting home a bag of strawberries we picked from one of the fields at the farm.
Later that afternoon we attended a Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir concert (local music, indeed!) and then went out for dinner at Heart Woodfire Kitchen on James Island. It was my first restaurant test.
We quizzed the server about what was local on the menu. It turns out, a fair amount of the side dishes, such as kale, asparagus and grits.
I got the grilled local fish plate, which was cobia. It was served with artichokes, potatoes, olives – decidedly not in season or not grown here at all. For the side, I chose the baby carrots and spinach, which were said to be local. The carrots definitely were, the same telltale size and shape of the ones I had purchased at Stono Market on Saturday.
Yes, I could've had a local beer with my dinner. There were three choices, in fact. But I wanted a glass of wine. Ashamed to say, but I cheated.
With just a few days under my belt, literally, a few things are becoming apparent about eating local. It's not cheap. Some things, but not all, will cost twice as much or more than if you purchased them in the grocery store.
You have to ask a whole lot of questions.
If you want a salad for lunch, you might have to be willing to pick lettuce in a wet garden before dawn, with bloodthirsty mosquitoes buzzing around your ears. In your pajamas.
But I guarantee, you will be thinking about what you are eating and how it tastes.
Reach Food Editor Teresa Taylor at 937-4886 or email@example.com.