Labels that Lie?

One of the most difficult things about the Eat Local Challenge is deciphering the labeling of products. I shop for all of my veggies at the farmer's market, where you can actually talk to the producers of your food and there are some regulations about the type of food that can be sold there and where it was grown, but even this has it's own issues because some of the markets are so incredibly busy that the vendors simply have no time to chat. The bustling of the markets is both good and bad - good because more people are visiting and buying from farmer's markets but bad because we're losing one of the best things about farmer’s markets, being able to form a relationship with the farmer or producer of the food you are going to eat.

However, none of the farmer's markets on the windward side that I can go to have meat or fish readily available. When I can make it to town (Honolulu) on Saturdays, and when it is available, I can get free-range chicken from Greg Yee at Blue Lotus Organic Farm or grass-fed beef from North Shore Cattle Company. NSCC also has meat available on the windward side at the Kailua Farmer's Market, but they often run out before either market even begins (many people go early and buy before the bell rings to begin the market, then go around and pick up their bags after it officially "starts"). We actually buy our beef wholesale (1/8 a cow) through an arrangement between Puu’o’Hoku Ranch on Molokai and the Slow Food group here on Oahu instead of NSCC in part because of availability, but also price and because we support the way the farm is run.

The fish counter at Whole Foods in the Kahala Mall -
they actually tell you where their fish is from, but most of it is not from Hawaii.

With the new labeling laws in effect, I've been seeing more countries of origin on the labels of some meats and fish many of the grocery stores I've recently visited. But while it does tell me the country, the label “Product of the USA” does not tell me where in the USA it is made or caught or produced. And it most certainly does not tell me whether it was caught or raised in Hawaii. The fish has been the biggest surprise. Even though this is an island with it’s very own fishing fleet, much of the fish is still shipped in from all over the worldeven things we can, and do, fish for here (Ahi, Opah, Opakapaka) and have farms for here (tilapia and prawns)!
Keep in mind that there is a paucity of local products in the grocery stores in general, even at Whole Foods, who actually makes it part of their "mission" to get as many local products on their shelves as possible. When it opened about a month ago, only about 1/4 of the fish selection and none of the meat selection at Whole Foods was locally caught or raised.

The windward side is even worse than Town – we have one vegetarian natural foods store with very few locally grown produce options and one non-vegetarian natural foods store with absolutely no local meat. While it is sometimes helpful to talk to the people at the meat or fish counters at other grocery stores, they often have no idea where the food or fish or meat is from either. Some stores have their own “local” labeling buzz words: "Island Produced," "Locally Grown," "Island Fresh," or some other variation on these phrases, and that’s primarily what I’ve been looking for and relying upon to make my grocery selections.

"Island Produced Pork" from Foodland: The label in question.

You might remember my story about the first day of the Challenge, wandering around Foodland, picking up anything I could scrounge for dinner and breakfast those first few days because I wasn’t quite prepared and the farmer’s market was still two days away. You might remember I picked up a pork leg steak under the “Island Produced” label. While I wondered to myself what “Island Produced” meant, I figured it would do as a local product for the day. I went home, grilled my steak and enjoyed it for dinner. For this, the second week of the Challenge, I went back and bought myself an “Island Produced” pork belly – figuring it would be fun to make my own bacon or roast it with veggies since this isn’t a cut that I see very often.

Then I opened my email this morning and found this story. Then I read this story. And watched this video. While the claims in the story haven’t been “verified” by state and local pig producers, which doesn’t surprise me, pork produced under this label are raised in Montana or California and shipped the 2,400+ miles to Hawaii in very inhumane conditions. They are then brought in, kept and slaughtered here on Oahu in similarly inhumane ways. Read the stories or watch the video if you want the full grisly details. Suffice it to say that I’m appalled and disgusted and there is no way I’m eating that pork belly now, nor buying from this label ever again.

Sigh. There’s also a “50th State Brand” chicken producer here. I’ve been staying away from it because the label says only that the chickens are “Processed and Packaged in Hawaii,” which to me indicates the chickens are not born and raised here at all…and now I’d question how they arrive here too. Not that the mainland has any more scruples than Hawaii though. I’ve read the books, I know the drill: the state of food production in the USA is horrible. LB and I typically buy organic or humanely raised meat and eggs and from small farmers when/if we can find it (in Eugene, this was easy), but even corporate organics, where we get our meat now, has its issues too. And there are no small, family farms shipping their organic goods to Hawaii. At least we have a few good beef and chicken producers here, and I think I’ll be sticking to them for my meat the rest of the time I’m here.
Grass-fed, organic Puu'o'hoku Ranch beef burger on Bale Bakery bun
with fresh, backyard guacamole, local veggie pasta salad (leftovers from a potluck) and warm okra salad.

To read more about the challenge, and find more local products, see these posts: 1, 2 and check the Eat Local Challenge website for updates on what's happening both locally and nationally.


Okra: Deslimed and Delicious

When I was a kid, okra came in neat little cylinders battered in flour and fried to a brown crisp. It was my favorite thing to get at the now defunct and long-ago closed down Furrs Restaurant in my small, Colorado hometown. Furrs was a chain restaurant - the kind of chain restaurant with deep blue and black paisley carpeting, where you grabbed your cafeteria-style tray (always a pale yellow or brown or gray) and loaded it up as you went along with small, individual white diner plates of such home-syle favorites as roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, boiled corn, and of course, green or yellow or red jello for dessert (or if you got lucky, pale yellow tapioca with whipped cream from a can that day). The quality of the food was, I'm sure, highly questionable, but as kid that didn't matter...at Furrs, I could get as much okra as I wanted.

I remember snaking through the line, packing up my tray with a veritable buffet of all of the available goods - grandpa and grandma and dad and various aunts, uncles and cousins flanking me on either side. One by one, we'd reach the end of the line and filter out into the enormous dining room lit by replicas of antique chandeliers that cast a deep, golden light over the whole place. And we'd sit down at one of the long, 12-person tables and just catch up with each other. My parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember, and these weekend ventures to Furrs were one of my favorite past-times with my dad's side of the family. We always took the whole family to Furrs when no body felt like cooking.

I think my love of okra began with my grandma. She makes a mean batch of okra. She's from Texas and there is no one in the world that makes fried okra like grandma and her siblings. The recipe is simple: okra, cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and cayenne. Fry it in your favorite bacon grease (well, she is from Texas) and you're done. It's perfect that way. Not healthy, but still perfect.

Unfortunately, the first time I tried making okra without frying it was a complete and utter disaster. I think I tried making some kind of quick pickled okra or something from a Martha Stewart magazine, and as soon as I cut into the stuff, that slick, sticky slime that okra is known for came oozing out onto everything. It didn't go away after a good soak in the vinegar solution either. In fact, I think it made it worse. It was like eating snails (or worse, snot) - and I wasn't eating that. Since then, I've tended to stay away from okra unless I need a good little artery-clogging kick, which does happen sometimes. That was until I started this Eat Local Challenge and was handed over a gracious sack of okra pods from the overflow of a friend of a friend's organic garden - green and bright and with dirt still clinging to them.

I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I took it. I also took home an idea for what to do with it: they brought a cold okra salad made with curry powder and jalepeno peppers. Before inundating the okra with spices, there was first the matter of desliming it. I searched the internet for ideas and there were tons out there. I finally came across a woman on some food forum telling how her grandmother taught her to do it, and how she had done since. I was sold.

Here's the basic idea
: Slice up your okra, put it in a saucepan and cover it with water. If it's a medium-sized saucepan, add about a 1/4 cup of vinegar to it (adjusting as necessary) and bring it to a boil. Simmer about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the spoon doesn't come out slimy when you stir it around the pot. Drain, and you're done. I used Aloha Cider Vinegar to deslime mine. Since I had recently run out of curry powder, I used cumin instead. Kona sea salt, pepper, a little macadamia nut oil, a touch more vinegar, and a locally grown hot pepper - and it was delicious. I paired it with an Island-produced pork leg steak - and there would have been Molokai sweet potatoes to go with it...if they didn't have plastic all over them.

Cumin-scented Warm Okra Salad, serves 4 - 6

  • approx 20 large okra, sliced into 1/4" to 1/2" pieces (Oahu; friend's garden, free)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. Apple Cider Vinegar (Aloha; Honolulu, Oahu; Longs $3.99)
  • 1 tbsp. Hawaii's Gold Macadamia Nut Oil (Oils of Aloha; Wailua, Oahu; Foodland $9/12.7 oz.)
  • 2 tsp. cumin
  • pinch of Kona sea salt (Big Island; Kailua Farmer's Market; $9/bag)
  • pepper, to taste
  • 1 red hot pepper, finely diced (Oahu; Kailua's Farmer's market; $1.00/10)
Deslime the okra (see above) using water and apple cider vinegar. Add the remaining ingredients (to taste, really, these are just approximations). Enjoy! I liked it best warm, but ate it cold the next day and it was good that way too. After that, the slime starts coming back...so be forewarned. ;)

Local Products and Places:
locally grown okra (from friends)
Kailua and KCC Farmer's Markets for hot peppers
Kona sea salt
Oils of Aloha Macadamia Nut Oil (Hawaii's Gold Pure Macadamia Oil)
Aloha Apple Cider Flavored Vinegar (though I must admit that the "flavoring" part scares me...)

To read more about the challenge, and find more local products, see these posts: 1, 2 and check the Eat Local Challenge website for updates on what's happening both locally and nationally.


Learning to be a Locavore

Just Add Water CSA Beets (Oahu)

As the first week of the Eat Local Challenge comes to a close, I’ve learned a few things. My emotions have run the gamut from thinking I live in a land of plenty to feeling like I live in a land of none. I’ve gone from wishing I my “exceptions” list was closer to that of a fellow locavore to reveling in the abundance of the new local products I’ve discovered or heard about from friends, relatives and other Hawaii food connoisseurs. I have felt frustration at grocery store fish counters, delight at talking to farmers, bewilderment while reading websites that say little to none about the actual production of the foods they make, sadness at the enormous loss of local dairies, rice paddies and egg farms in recent years, and even a smidgen of confidence as I try and explain to curious grocery store clerks, friends and coworkers about what I am trying to do and why I feel it is important.

It’s been a strange, winding trip from the beginning of the Challenge until now…Day 1 had me scrambling around my pantry, unprepared, trying to find things that I knew were local. Breakfast was easy, oddly enough – a few “island-fresh” Kalei eggs scrambled with scallions from the farmer’s market and a mango from our CSA box. Since I teach Wednesday mornings, I came home for lunch to a lovely salad made by LB containing the last few, scraggly CSA vegetables in my refrigerator drawer. Somehow the small, single, whole Roma tomato rolling around the bottom of the Tupperware felt like an unusually poignant finale to the whole meal as I bit into its juicy flesh, it’s seeds spraying into the back of my mouth.

Farmer's Market Finds: Pepeau (black tree fungus) from Maui
and oyster mushrooms from Oahu

Running to the grocery store to gather things for dinner was a rude awakening: I spent 30 minutes (on a hungry stomach) searching for local products and ended up paying $7.56 for a locally grown dragonfruit that became Thursday’s breakfast. I found “Island Produced” pork that didn’t say where on the “Island” it was produced and couldn’t find anyone who could answer my questions about it – still, I took the least unusual of the cuts (a leg “steak”) and added it to my basket. $50 and a small basket of a few local products later, I headed home. Dinner became the pork steak, grilled, with a warm okra salad (the okra came from a friend’s garden). We had planned to have steamed potatoes to go with the rest of our dinner, but thanks to a bit of oversight and distraction, our cheap plastic steamer melted into the pot when the pot ran out of water. Oops. We shared a bit of Oahu-produced Wailua Estate 70% dark chocolate to end the meal, treasuring the fact that chocolate is actually produced here. Exasperated from ruining one of the pots I use all the time, and knowing the following day would be difficult until I could head to the Farmer’s Market that evening, I decided I had to start fresh the next day.

Having made it through that first day, the rest of the days have flowed much easier. I now have my sources for a diversity of whole foods: organic (and some non-organic) fruit and vegetables; Hawaii-raised grass-fed beef, organic free-range chicken, and pork (although the “leg” cut is about the only one I think I could stomach); and organic eggs. Sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, goat cheese, beer and wine have also been easy to find. I’ve found several local sources for delicious “processed foods” too – bakery breads; shoyu (soy sauce) and vinegars; tofu; granola; asian-style noodles and wrappers; tortillas and more.

Ono, fresh off the boat; Honolulu Fish Auction

Is it right to trade in my locavore card and eat processed foods whose ingredients don’t come from here? Some people in the midst of this challenge may think so. Some days, even I would agree – it feels almost like cheating. One thing I’ve learned this week is that the rules can, and will, change as I go along – just as my feelings do. I’m learning a lot more about my local food-shed than I thought I would. I’ve found it can be a roller coaster of trying to do what’s right, only to find that sometimes it’s not. Locally caught varieties of fish aren’t necessarily sustainable fish. I've heard that Meadow Gold Dairy products are strictly from the mainland, despite what their website says. It’s like reading Michael Pollan's books again and realizing that it’s not just the big box companies in far-away places that you have to worry about – sometimes the trickery is happening right in your back yard – as you learn that your milk travels 2,400 miles, unchilled, to become the only milk in the USA that is double pasteurized, after it's arrival 8 days later.

I’ve also learned that things are more complicated than I could have foreseen…there are two sides to every story. You may decide to cut one company off your list because everything isn’t from here, even if there are no reasonable alternatives. Then you learn that the company was just bought and is now owned by its employees and has a long-standing history of community on the island, even since before World War II. You pick your battles, I guess, and then choose the path that is right for you. First and foremost, this Challenge is about awareness for me, and I know I feel more alert and aware to every item that enters my kitchen these days.

locally grown "French Sorrel" (Oahu)

I may not be able to eat like a locavore for 100% of my diet (there are no whole grains or dairy are produced here, and I prefer to have both in my diet), but I’ve founds some gems for some things and had my fair share of disappointments for others. My dinners are simple, un-complicated and unfussy, but nearly everything has been tasty (minus, perhaps, those potatoes that the steamer melted into, but we decided not to try eating those). Still, no matter what, my eyes are now open to a new world of farmers, producers, grocery store clerks and friends that I didn’t even know were foodies deep down inside – offering up their own recommendations, secret sources, and sometimes food from their back yard. And you know what? There’s a plethora of delicious options out there.

Local products I’ve been eating and drinking this week:
  • Raposa mangoes, apple bananas, kale, chard, collard greens, green and red lettuce, beets, sunflower and daikon sprouts, sweet basil, sweet onions, napa cabbage, beans, oyster mushrooms (Just Add Water CSA; $25/week)
  • Oahu-grown Dragonfruit ($5.99/lb from Foodland on sale, but also at the Kailua farmer’s market for a bit cheaper)
  • Oahu-grown Molokai, Ho'olomahia, and Okinawan sweet potatoes ($3 for 6; Kaiula farmer’s market)
  • Tangerines, avocados, macadamia nuts, apple bananas and okra (from our own and from friend’s backyards; free)
  • Big Island Goat Dairy feta cheese (R. Field Wine Co., Foodland); Surfing Goat Dairy goat cheese and feta (Maui, $6/round; Kailua farmer’s market)
  • Nalo Farms baby romaine (Oahu, Kailua Farmer’s Market; $4 for 2 small heads)
  • Ono “Island Fresh” (Hawaii caught; Foodland; $8.50 for 2 small fillets) *on the "good alternatives" list
  • Big Island Bees Organic Honey Ohi’a Lehua Blossom (KCC farmer’s market – but we get it from our neighbor who sells it there; $5/4.5 oz.
  • Kona Sea Salt (Big Island, Kailua Farmer’s Market; $9/small bag)

Some good locally produced “processed” foods I've tried this week:
I’ll be telling you about some of my favorite foods and products in the next week, as well as some of the recipes for some of the dishes we’ve been creating, so stay tuned! If you have suggestions for products or places to discover new foods, please feel free to leave me a comment - I'm learning from all of you too!


The 2008 Eat Local Challenge

Hawaii imports nearly 90% of its food from other places
. We don’t even make many of the ingredients that most people consider essential to daily life anywhere on the islands. There are no rice paddies in Hawaii. No one in the state grows wheat nor makes flour (at least any that I’ve been able to find). There is not a single dairy left on Oahu (although if you read Meadow Gold’s website, they still say that is where they’re getting their milk…). That means there’s no local source for butter on Oahu then either (No butter? Oh my God, why did I move here???). Considering that we are one of the most isolated island chains in the world, should the current oil and economic crisis continue, we could one day find ourselves without planes and ships delivering food to our doorstep daily. It’s unlikely for now, I know. But if/when that occurred, some people believe that we would not be able to sustain our Island populations for even a month on the food that is grown and produced here. It’s a sobering thought.

Put all that aside for a moment, however, and you’ll find we’re quite lucky in many ways. Not only do we live in paradise (tee hee ho ho...I guess I can live with imported butter), but we are also one of the only states in the US that produces their own coffee, tea, chocolate, salt and sugar, we have a plethora of delicious varieties of fruit and fresh island produce, and we even have a few (albeit some nearly secret) farmers and fisherman that produce organic, free-range chicken and eggs, grass-fed beef, our own iodine-rich source of sea vegetables and some of the freshest prawns and fish that the ocean has to offer.

The Eat Local Challenge began in 2005, in an effort to get more people out there foraging across their home states (and in some case, foraging only 100 miles from their homes) for local sources for nearly everything. The goal was, and still is, simple: try your best to eat 100% locally grown foods for 30 days (or at least try and eat as many as you possibly can). Their website is a collaborative hub of foodies, food bloggers and normal everyday Joe's around the world who are doing their best to seek out local products - and they've even got their own title in Wikipedia: the locavore. Being a newbie to the local food scene here on Oahu (and after a great suggestion from a fellow locavore), I decided that this would be a great way to help (/force) myself find locally available products. So, I signed LB and myself up 5 days ago (hey, honey, I signed us up for something that I hope you want to do too...). Today was the first day. I'll keep you updated with weekly (maybe bi-weekly) posts on the progress of our local eating habits, but I'd really like to feature some of the better foods we find and eat throughout the whole thing, so stay tuned for that too.

The first step is making a creed of sorts:

1. What is your definition of local?
After a bit of research the last few days, I think our definition of "local" has to be the entire state of Hawaii, which includes all of the surrounding islands. Considering we're a small island ourselves (only 566.66 miles), and since the majority of those miles are either not livable (think: very steep volcanic mountains!), are full of residents or tourists and resident or tourist properties, or are industrial, then I think this is fair. Relatively speaking, the miles from Island to Island that our Island-produced products travel are far shorter than any food that would be imported from anywhere else. Also, when it is impossible to find foods that are grown locally, I will at least support local producers (for instance, we have some fantastic bakeries, even if they don't produce the flour, they know how to use it well!) - for me, this is part of the over-all goal and supports the local economy and small, family or individual enterprises. If I eat out, it will be at a place that sources as many products as possible from local growers and producers.

2. What exemptions will you claim?
I'm going to try to claim as little as possible, while still living like a person: spices that are not available locally (including pepper, unless I can find a local source...), flour, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, Dijon mustard and butter. I will also be drinking organic soymilk from Costco (milk costs sooo much here!) and using organic half-and-half in my coffee until I hear back from the people at Meadow Gold to find out if the really do source and distribute from local dairies. I was going to just cut them out completely, even if they were local, until I saw that they don't use growth hormones in their milk (whew). So I'll let you know if that changes. I'll try to make it through the month without rice, but I'm putting it here just in case I get desperate... Also, any perishables that are in my fridge right now that aren't local - letting them go to waste isn't good for anybody.

3. What is your goal for the month?

Our goal is to support our local economy and the farmers and producers who are the blood, sweat and tears that actually provide food to this Island state - it reduces our carbon footprint, supports local families, promotes sustainability and it's something I'm passionate about already. I've been wanting to find and feature local foods on here since we arrived in Hawaii, and this is a great chance to meet new people involved in the local food shed, to find great products, and even just to see if it's possible. But importantly, our goal is also not to break the bank. Food is not cheap in Hawaii by any means, and often local foods are even more expensive than imported goods (go figure). So, we aim to find high quality, local goods that are reasonably priced (or at least worth the price). I think that's about it. Gulp...what have I gotten myself into?!

You can still sign up. Care to join us?