By our second week on the 100-Mile Diet, my family's three-week experiment of eating only foods that are grown and processed within a tight 100-mile radius of Toronto, we were eating really well.
The farmers' markets were now filled with every shade of green, from dark-leaved spinach to sage-coloured Russian kale. We had fresh-churned Mennonite butter and farm eggs so new they miraculously held their shape when I poached them for breakfast.
Meat was one of the easiest foods to find, so long as we bought it from a reputable butcher shop. When I called Stephen Alexander at Cumbrae's to ask what I could eat, the Australian didn't skip a beat. "Not a problem," he said - we could eat most of his cuts. It was the best food news I'd had in a week. He even offered to track the origin of the feed, to ensure that it had been grown in a field nearby.
So why was the diet getting on everyone's nerves? I still believed in the cause: to cut down on food miles and reduce the carbon footprint of our grocery bills. Nevertheless, like most middle-class Toronto families, we were used to being spoiled for choice. One of the best things about eating in this city is the amazing diversity of ingredients and food traditions. You can get samosas that rival the snacks at the Delhi train station and soup dumplings nearly as good as the ones in Shanghai.
It seemed perverse to turn our backs on such a wealth of traditions. Even Terroni's pizza crusts, made with a half-and-half mixture of Canadian and Italian flour, were forbidden to us. This was beginning to seem like the Anti-Toronto Diet.
Each of us had a thing or two we couldn't bear to be without. For me, it was olive oil and lemons. I had great hope for our local cold-pressed canola, which has invited comparisons with roasted hazelnuts.
Chef-entrepreneur Jamie Kennedy calls it "foxy." Funky was more like it. It made a decent dressing for beets roasted with apple juice and garlic scapes (the sweetness tempered its rough-hewn flavours), but it wasn't the sort of oil I wanted to use every night. Mr. Kennedy suggested that I try cold-pressed soybean oil from Pristine Oils instead.
I had found Pristine's canola at Atelier Thuet, but Pristine Oils was in the midst of rebranding its line, and had pulled most of its product from Toronto grocery shelves. Owner Jason Persall offered to courier me a bottle of soybean oil, and I gratefully accepted. It was a much better stand-in, as golden and buttery as overripe Sicilian oil.
My husband's Achilles heel was beer. For the first few days of the experiment, we blithely drank our local microbrews - there were so many brands to choose from. Then I found out Ontario can't grow hops, at least not the kind you'd want to drink. The barley often comes from out west. Some breweries even truck in their spring water. I broke the news to my husband, Anton, just as he was about to light the charcoal barbecue. He went straight to the fridge and pulled out a Creemore. "I guess that means you're not drinking any more beer," he said, flipping the cap and taking a flamboyant swig.
I uncorked a Niagara riesling and bit my tongue. After all, the point of the diet was not to prove how many privations we could endure; it was to uncover as many local foods as I could - ones we would continue to eat when the experiment was finished.
Surprisingly, my children were more flexible about the new regime. Though my two-year-old had taken to chanting "banana, banana" forlornly at snack time, she was easily distracted by a handful of berries. Emma, my four-year-old, had given up her morning cereal, her peanut-butter sandwiches and even crackers and cookies without a fuss. But she drew the line at pasta.
Here's another food-mile irony for you: Though Canada's two largest pasta companies make their own noodles in the Greater Toronto Area, the main ingredient, durum wheat, grows in the Prairies. We would have to make our own. Luckily, you can make fresh pasta with all-purpose flour. Pasta-making seemed like a good afternoon activity with the children, so I bought a hand-cranked pasta maker (mea culpa, it was made in Italy) on my way to the Dufferin Grove Farmers' Market.
I parked at Dufferin Mall and cut through the food court, where the scene was eerily familiar. Most tables seated one or two people eating burgers or industrial chow mein. Nearly everyone had the same, vacant look you see on subway faces. The only sounds were the roar of the air conditioner and the one table that was actually having a conversation.
Then I crossed the street to shop at Dufferin Grove, where a dreadlocked guitarist was strumming Old MacDonald. At every stall, there was a buzz of conversation, as people exchanged recipes and inspected bunches of unidentified greens.
One farmer, who recognized me from last week, quickly rattled off what qualified for my diet: spinach, peas and zucchini grown at the farm. But when I picked up a red pepper, he thumbed his nose at me and smiled mischievously. "A hundred and fifty miles - nyah nyah!"
Meanwhile, another vendor pulled out a Super Soaker and began chasing some children. Farmers' markets are among the few places left in the city where strangers mix easily with strangers.
Back home, as I unpacked the groceries, my four-year-old grabbed a ripe yellow tomato and started eating it like an apple. Rowan, my two-year-old, devoured a cob of raw corn - the kernels were that sweet.
The girls and I started making pasta at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. An hour later, there was flour and egg everywhere. (Next time, I would use a mixing bowl, Italian grandmothers be damned.) But we had a gorgeous, supple dough that the girls were rolling through the machine. Soon, they were fighting over who got to turn the crank.
That night, we grilled Cumbrae's rack of lamb and red and white bulb onions slathered in herb butter. We ate them with fettuccine tossed with tomatoes and mint. There was a carpaccio of candy-cane beets for the adults, while we all feasted on the pale pearls of the season's first corn.
I was still spending far more time grocery shopping each week, but my thinking was beginning to change. If I thought of it as a social event - dropping in at the market or local shops with the whole family to chat with acquaintances and catch up with farmers or my neighbours - the time seemed much better spent. It was certainly more enjoyable than the anonymous experience of the grocery store. And somehow, the food tasted better when we knew exactly where it came from.
Next week: Do you know where your apples come from? Why I now spend three times as much money on my children's apple juice.
A 100-mile dinner: The shopping list
Candy-cane beets and fresh garlic: Riverdale Farmers' Market, Tuesday afternoons at Winchester and Sumach.
Pristine canola oil and Essence of Niagara vinegar: Atelier Thuet, Liberty Village, 171 East Liberty St., Unit 153, 416-603-2777.
Lamb: Cumbrae's, 1636 Bayview Ave., 416-485-5620 and 481 Church St., 416-923-5600.
Corn and bulb onions: Farmer's Daughter, 946 Kingston Rd., 416-690-0900.
Cherry tomatoes, peaches and raspberries: East York Farmers' Market, Tuesday mornings at Coxwell and Mortimer.
Mint: From my garden.
Lemon balm: From my mother's garden.