By Carey Restino
Saskia Esslinger missed coffee the most. Her husband craved pretzels. And bananas are a revelation to their young son, Graysen.
But aside from a few exceptions, the Anchorage family was able to stay happy and well nourished after a year of subsisting almost entirely on Alaska food.
Esslinger, Matt Oster and young Graysen embarked on a self-imposed challenge in the summer of 2011 to eat entirely Alaska grown food for a year. Their journey – from the quest for local honey to milling their own flour from Delta Junction wheat – will be the topic of two presentations in Homer this Friday, starting with a noon presentation at the Kachemak Bay Campus. At 6 p.m., there will be a potluck and discussion at Neil and Kyra Wagner’s home.
Esslinger said the idea was simply to see if they could do it.
“We wanted to see if it was possible to eat locally year-round in Alaska, and to share with other people if we could — to inspire others and share our experience with other people,” Esslinger said.
The couple had been moving in the direction of eating locally and producing as much of their own food as they could for years, but taking the challenge to the next level was a new experience.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves,” she said.
The resulting experience was that with a few exceptions, the family found the transition fairly easy. They allowed a few items – salt and baking soda, for example – that would have simply been too difficult to find locally. And there was the socialization clause. If they went to a friend’s house or a restaurant, they could eat what they wanted, but they had to reciprocate with an Alaska meal. They could also accept gifts — Esslinger’s birthday involved a lot of chocolate.
But otherwise, the couple sought out and made their own butter and flour, and found local sources for a myriad of other food items. Their Anchorage garden provided much of the produce for the year. They found Alaska-grown apples and made applesauce.
“It was a big challenge and an eye-opener,” Esslinger said. “It was interesting to see how much we still relied on a lot of non-local food” before the challenge.
The family didn’t embark on the journey alone, however. A group of like-minded community members also committed to eating local as much as possible, though few took it as far as they did, Esslinger said.
In her blog post at the end of the challenge, Esslinger describes the experience:
“But then, suffering was never the intended result… the goal was to push our edges, to get more local foods into our lives and encourage others to do the same. And from that respect it was a huge success. We proved that you can eat local year-round, even in Alaska. We showed that it is healthy, delicious, and affordable. We also demonstrated that you can grow much of your own food in your own yard. We grew/raised over 1,600 pounds of food last summer, and we still have capacity for more! We still have so much food in our freezers and pantry that we decided to sell our excess produce at the Spenard Farmer’s Market this year.”
Esslinger said when the challenge was over, she was surprised by how much less important the things they thought they would enjoy re-introducing into their lives were. A block of blue cheese she bought after the challenge went uneaten. Walnuts, quinoa and rolled oats, too, she writes.
“I suppose the point of the challenge was to get us to change those non-local habits. It’s not to deprive us of them forever, but show us local alternatives. It is still nice for a holiday treat to break out the chocolate bourbon pecan pie recipe, and it’s also nice to have an all- local pumpkin pie as well.
Overall, I feel our diet is healthier and more delicious than before. But we are still learning and getting better at growing, preserving and cooking local food. A cookbook based on local, seasonal foods is in the works. Our journey is far from over and we are still enjoying the ride!”
Esslinger said she realizes there isn’t the capacity in Alaska for everyone to eat locally, but said moving as much in that direction as possible should be the goal.
“If we are all buying locally then our food system will be more robust,” she said. “It’s a matter of building up our local food system in case we need them. We hope that people will be inspired to look closer at their own life and see ways in which they can eat more local food.”
You can read more about the family’s journey with local eating as well as read about a variety of other projects they are involved in at williamsstreetfarmhouse.com. Call 235-6953 for directions to the Wagner’s potluck.
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