It's that time of year again - a time usually wrought with guilt and gravy, when we eat too much, spend too much and absorb a year's worth of stress in a matter of weeks. This season, take it easy on your purse, your health and the environment by applying some of these simple strategies for making your holiday festivities and feasting a celebration of your family, your community and the local treasures available within your region!
Transform shopping drudgery into fun foraging: We all spend more money during the holidays, so keep those dollars local, and avoid mall traffic and box store crowds by patronizing Main Street shops or one of the nearly 8,000 farmers markets and farm stands dotting our nation. Many feature special holiday and winter markets for choice local food specialties, wreaths and other decorations, and those one-of-a-kind gifts and crafts we all love. Take the kids, invite a neighbor or a shut-in along on your shopping forays, save by sharing gas costs, and create a happy new annual tradition.
Enrich your holiday feast with local ingredients: Living in Vermont, I often use maple syrup collected in my state to replace corn syrup, sugar and even vanilla. Local sourcing of high-use items like eggs, butter, milk, honey, breads and grains guarantees freshness, deliciousness and the best nutrition money can buy. It also supports the local economy. When shopping at farm markets, stroll the booths, talk to vendors, and sample their goods. Check for local labels, and ask if foods come from within 50 miles of home.
Mix up the main course: I know it sounds like blasphemy, but why not give yourself permission to eschew the traditional turkey this year, or at least shrink its poundage and allow Tom Turkey to share the spotlight with a second main course. Try out meats and fish that showcase your region's very best, freshest, tastiest local offerings, such as baked ham in Virginia, Pacific salmon in Seattle, and Texas beef in Dallas. Be creative!
Give local veggies a starring role: Dress up locally grown, plain-Jane vegetables with unique flourishes. Serve broccoli and beans in a parmesan or bechamel sauce, or sprinkle with toasted sunflower seeds, or add a sprinkle of fresh lemon. Try a new ratatouille or curried vegetable recipe that all your relatives will be asking for after dinner. It's also a scrumptious way of getting the American Medical Association seal of approval; they recommend vegetables over meat in a balanced meal.
Honor Native traditions: Explore the history of early Americans in your region, and remember them in native food choices. Be sure to tell children and relatives why you selected native cranberries, corn, pumpkins and other foods for this special meal. The holidays are more than a time for feasting - they were, and are, a celebration of family, community and gratitude for the natural abundance of this amazing and diverse country.
Check the sources of exotic ingredients: When buying chocolate, coffee, pineapple, cinnamon sticks, olive oil and other ingredients from abroad, make sure they are fair-trade labeled, that they aren't manufactured with child labor and that they are made with sensitivity to the environment. It does matter.
Waste nothing: Set up a composting system or strategy for your holiday bounty of veggie peelings. If you don't have a composter or pile, find a local gardener or farmer who does, or place your scraps in a local wild land - a way of honoring fellow creatures and enriching soils. However, do spread compost away from human habitation, since you might be inviting skunks to the feast!
Choose cloth over paper: Paper napkins can't be recycled. Replace them with colorful cloth napkins to add elegance and personality to your holiday table. Avoid paper towels too. I've lived without them for years, using washable hand towels instead. Haven't missed the paper at all - a good year-round habit. It only makes sense to save some trees.
Plan now for next year: Use some foresight - harvest local crops and wild foods throughout the year, preserving them for your next holiday feast. I've picked autumn apples, and gathered and frozen summer blueberries, blackberries and strawberries for holiday baking extravaganzas and jams for gifting. Every fruity bite is full of sweet memories of foraging on sunny days gone by. Local harvesting is an activity you, your family and friends can share - a celebratory tradition that may endure for generations.
Happy local holidays!
Karen Johnston is an Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant, former farmer and community food activist living in Montpelier, Vt. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.