Un-Super Size Me: One Week of Eating Local
It began with a chicken. Or to be more precise, dreams of a chicken. I wanted a plump red bird with a healthy sheen, a thick neck and green tail feathers. I would build it a coop, give it crushed corn and keep its water clean. And then, when the time was right, I would feed the bird to my family for Sunday supper.
The chicken was part of a larger plan: To see if I could eat food grown or raised within 100 miles of where I live for a week straight—consume only that and nothing else. This is called eating local, and those who abide by the practice are known as locavores. The movement has been gaining steam across the country for years, but in Dallas, it's just finding its legs. For some, eating local is a way to rebel against the methods used to grow industrialized food. For others, it's a way to save the environment by reducing fossil fuel consumption used to transport food. For those involved in the Slow Food Movement, it's the antithesis of fast food, a way to take time to appreciate healthy food. For me, well, I saw it as a way I might reconnect with what I had lost since leaving my family's farm 12 years ago.
I was the first in my family to leave the country for the big city—first to New York and then to Dallas—and somewhere along the way I forgot many of the basics about food and nutrition I had learned growing up. Eat meat sparingly. Honor the land for what it gives you. Share with your neighbors. Frankly, lessons about food and community, about the land and nature and the interdependence of living things seemed a bit old-fashioned back then.
Leaving the farm, I settled in to an on-the-go life, and my food choices adjusted accordingly. I felt liberated eating Cocoa Puffs (strictly forbidden by my mother) and drinking as much Dr Pepper (also banned from the family table) as I wanted. Big Macs became my go-to meal rather than a rare treat on family road trips.
My story, in a small way, is the story of the changes many Americans have made in the way they eat over the last 50-60 years, as we have moved from farms to cities. Nowadays, most of us don't know where our food comes from, and if we do, we try not to dwell on it too much. But it's hard not to think that some of the biggest health crises Americans now face—obesity, heart disease, diabetes–don't have at least something to do with the way we produce food and what we choose to eat.
My goal to eat local for a week was by no means original. Other writers have assembled meals from within 25 miles of their apartments or transformed their suburban backyards into full-fledged farms, complete with humping rabbits, squawking ducks and gardens of collard greens and turnips. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about living off locally produced food in rural Virginia. If she didn't raise it, grow it or buy it locally, she wouldn't eat it. Kingsolver did this for a year. My goal was less ambitious. City slicker that I now am, I hoped to hold out for a week.
There wasn't time to grow a garden, and my backyard is too small for most barnyard animals. But a chicken—a chicken I could do. The way I saw it, to understand the locavore, I needed to raise or grow something myself in an urban environment, or at least try. The rest would come from family farms in the area, local dairies (if there were any left), and the Dallas Farmers Market.
"You know you're doing this at the worst time of the year," a farmer named Robert Hutchins told me after I explained my plan over the phone in early September.
"Isn't this harvest time?" I asked.
"Not in Dallas. We're between harvest seasons. Now if you were doing this in say, May, or maybe in a month or two, there would be plenty. But right now, it's going to be tough."
I looked at my pantry. It was filled with Kraft Mac and Cheese, cans of pork and beans, and a half-empty bag of Tostitos. The farmer wished me luck as he hung up the phone. I was feeling hungry already.
Days before my project is set to begin, I find myself standing in front of the vending machine at work, choosing between a sack of powdered doughnuts and a bag of chips to keep me going for the rest of the day. The 7-Eleven hot dog that I ate for lunch is still digesting in my gut. Because of my harried schedule, I rarely eat a meal at the dinner table with my wife and two boys. I wonder how I've gotten to this point as I wander back to my cubicle, plop down in front of my computer and tear into the packaged doughnuts.
I troll the Internet looking for tips on eating local when I come across a group called Slow Food Dallas. In somewhat grave language, its governing constitution states that the "modern techno-industrial age is upon us" and that it has destroyed traditional cultures and threatens the very future of life in North Texas. Food should taste good, its constitution points out, and it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment or our health.
I call up the leader of the group, Jennifer Uygur, a self-proclaimed foodie who is married to a local chef. Uygur explains that the purpose of the Slow Food movement, which has 86,000 members worldwide, is to marry the joys of eating with a slower, more reflective lifestyle. In America, this has mostly translated into wine and cheese tasting parties, but in Dallas, Slow Food is the only organization that unites the disparate bodies that make up the eat-local movement, which includes farmers, chefs, gardeners, a few middlemen and people like me—a budding locavore.
"I'm trying to shorten the distance between me and the folks making food," Uygur explains. "But I also want to do it because locally produced food tastes better."
Uygur says that people in her group eat local for all sorts of reasons. Some do it to reduce their carbon footprint, some for health reasons and others just to slow down.
Most who belong are aware of the dangers of industrialized farming, she says, even if most of America is not. These dangers are chronicled in several books that have given birth to the eat-local movement, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. Sounding somewhat alarmist, they argue that factory farms disrupt the ecosystem, pollute the environment and produce food that is unhealthy and, in many cases, unsafe. They rail against the chicken nugget for being mostly corn. Don't even ask what they say about my food group of choice—the hamburger. Those who eat local shun the industrial food system in favor of a more sustainable family farm model.
This all sounds good but also expensive. How realistic is it for a middle-income suburban family of four to live off grass-fed beef and fancy goat cheese?
Uygur suggests I call Seth and Amy Wardlow, a Slow Food Dallas couple who live as locavores in Richardson. They grow a garden that gives them most of their vegetables, and they raise chickens in their backyard. They might even be able to give me some pointers on the art of urban chicken farming.
Turns out, the Wardlows have a story much like mine. Seth was born into a farming family, and he often spent his summers working on his aunt's spread in the Rio Grande Valley, helping to cultivate corn, sugar cane and cotton. His father, a fourth-generation Texan, was the first in his family to leave the farm, but he took with him an appreciation of where food comes from and an awareness of the problems with factory farms. He insisted his family grow their own vegetables pesticide-free and bake their own bread with organic wheat trucked in from Kansas.
Seth's wife, Amy, also avoided processed foods, and when the two married they vowed they would raise their children to do the same. For years, the couple talked about raising chickens until one day at work a friend began telling Seth about the brood of chickens he kept in his yard in East Dallas. The friend had started a cooperative of chicken farmers in his neighborhood (Cooperative League of Urban Chicken Keepers, or C.L.U.C.K.) but said that he was moving and needed someone to take his birds. And like that, Seth and his wife became Richardson chicken farmers.
Seth assures me that building his coop was easy and that chickens make excellent pets. If their cages are cleaned regularly, they leave no odor and make no noise, he says, except for some minimal clucking when laying eggs.
"I love it," he says. "My wife and I call it chicken therapy. We'll sit on the porch and drink wine and watch the chickens scratch [in the dirt, looking for worms]."
Seth says he and Amy try to eat local as much as possible, partly because of the way they were raised, and partly because their oldest son is allergic to corn and gluten, rendering him unable to eat most processed food. The family grows most of their own vegetables, eats eggs from their chickens and tries to make up the rest from farmers markets and a local co-op that sells grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and non-pasteurized milk every Saturday at a parking lot close to their home.
"It's nice to feel connected to something you consume, to know where it really came from," Seth tells me. "It's not easy; you have to really go searching for a lot of the stuff we buy, but it's worth it, especially for our kids."
Wardlow wishes me luck and tells me to call if I have any questions. He suggests I return someday, just to sit on his porch with him and watch the chickens scratch. That sounds nice, I tell him. I decide to not mention my locavorish plans to keep and then cook my own urban-raised chicken.
Not far from where I live in Plano, just off the intersection of Parker and Jupiter roads, stands one of the last remnants of Texas' agrarian past in the metroplex. It's the farm of Todd Moore, a third-generation Texas dairyman. I arrive at his farm, the Lucky Layla dairy, to get the cheese, yogurt and eggs that should hold me over for my weeklong experiment.
The farm sits on 300 acres, completely hidden from the surrounding metropolis by the tall oak and sycamore trees that have been here since his grandfather's time. Driving down the bumpy dirt road that leads to the milking barn brings back memories.
I grew up in the high desert country of Northern Nevada on a small spread built on the banks of a slow-moving river thick with cottonwood trees. I had a Huck Finn kind of childhood: summer afternoons spent on a wooden raft catching bullfrogs or jumping off a rope swing into the muddy river with my brothers and sister. Our pigs wallowed on the river bank, which served as a water source for our garden and livestock. Despite its rock-hard desert soil, we felt tethered to the land. We grew tomatoes and bell peppers and squash and watermelons, and made cheese from our goat's milk. Life could be hard—hauling buckets of water to the sheep on cold winter mornings, waking up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows—but it could also be satisfying. Nothing like sitting on a flatbed trailer on a hot evening, eating cold cantaloupe after a day of clearing a neighbor's hay field.
I find Moore in the cool cinder-block office at the front of his milk barn, where he and his wife sell their products from an old refrigerator decorated with cow-shaped magnets. He's dressed in shorts and sandals and has the easygoing nature of the dairymen I had grown up around.
As we step outside and climb onto a small orange tractor, Moore says he likes giving tours to his customers. His goal is to educate people about where their food comes from and to show them the many ways in which Lucky Layla is different from other dairies.
Most dairies I've seen keep their cows standing in their own manure. Moore doesn't confine his cows to small, fenced-in pens where the animals have little to do but eat and defecate. He lets his herd roam where they want, from the shade of his oak trees to a large pond he's dug for them to use on hot days like this one.
We drive down a little hill and across a wooden bridge that spans a small, tree-lined creek. Moore points to the trash scattered on the shaded banks. "That's from Sam's Club and Tom Thumb and everything else on the other side of the freeway," he says. "I tell the city about it, ask them to clean it up, but they say it's my responsibility." For Moore, it's a constant reminder of how the city is encroaching on his farm and trying to push him out.
Moore says he is trying to stay true to the old ways, but it's not easy. The survival of his farm depends on the success of the high-end cheeses and yogurts he sells under the Lucky Layla brand, which is carried by gourmet grocery stores such as Eatzi's and Market Street. So far, the demand has met expectations, he says, because the eat-local craze is catching on. "I just hope it keeps up."
We drive past some old buildings in various stages of disrepair. He points to the barn his grandfather built, which was necessary for the teams of stock horses he used to plow the fields. At one time the farm was entirely self-sustaining. There were chickens and turkeys to eat the insects in the fields, making the grass safe for cows to graze on. The cows then provided a natural fertilizer to the fields, which in turn provided hay for the winter. The farm was a model of environmental friendliness, seemingly unending cycles of life and death, of waste turning into growth.
Now that eating local has become popular, Moore's dream is to return the farm to what it once was. He points to a flatbed trailer he wants to change into a mobile chicken coop, which he would rotate to different parts of his pasture to make sure his chickens always had fresh grass to eat.
"When I was a kid we used to have a fridge on the front porch full of eggs," he recalls. "People would come from all around and take the eggs and leave money. It was completely on the honor system. I want to do something like that."
I give him the opportunity, running short of cash after loading eggs, cheese and yogurt into the back of my station wagon. I tell him I'll just make a quick run to the ATM at the convenience store across the street.
He tells me not to worry about it. "You'll be back," he says.
I leave Lucky Layla and drive out to the Rehoboth Ranch in Greenville, about an hour northeast of Dallas, to meet Robert Hutchins, a farmer who has done as much as anyone to build the eat-local movement in Dallas. (Robert Hutchins' ranch is also featured in our Best of Dallas® pullout, page 70.)
Hutchins looks exactly like what one might expect. He's tall and stocky, with meaty forearms and a neck as thick as a rump roast. On the September afternoon we meet, he is wearing denim overalls and a straw hat. He's just left the pasture where his goats graze.
Hutchins left the corporate world for farming, hoping to find a slower-paced lifestyle after spending 20 years in the military and the defense industry. He is part of a trend—or so says a July article in The New York Times—of professionals who want to get back to the land. The piece tells the story of Daniel Gibson, who gave up his job as a senior vice president of a hotel chain to become a farmer in upstate New York. In the last three years, the membership in an organic farming group in New York has shot up by a third, with much of the increase attributable to people like Gibson. The Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners coalition has seen similar gains over the same time period, says Jackie King, the group's president and a rancher herself. A good portion of its new members are people who have turned to farming as a second or third career, King says. She and her husband, who run P.O.P. Acres Ranch in Corsicana, have themselves turned to farming as a second act.
Hutchins heard the call 14 years ago, when he returned from California to Greenville, where he had been raised. Though still a defense contractor, he bought a piece of the family farm where he had grown up. "When I moved back I felt like an alien," Hutchins says as we walk to the small barn where he milks his goats. "There was not the same level of awareness of eating healthy food that we saw in California. So we became more and more committed to supplying healthy food to our own family."
He took his animals off chemicals, he says, and made certain that they remained in a natural environment and were only eating natural foods. He started sharing what his family couldn't eat with neighbors and friends, and before long his grass-fed meat became a side business. In 2000, he quit his job and devoted himself entirely to the family farm. "The health food industry was growing at 20-30 percent a year starting in the mid-'90s, and I knew that once this caught on, it was going to get really big," he says.
Today, the farm sits on 300 acres of rolling hills in the Sabine River bottoms. Unlike factory farms, where livestock live out their days in warehouse-like buildings under fluorescent lighting or on massive feedlots crammed together in manure-filled holding pens, Hutchins' animals roam freely on designated pastures spread out across his property. He raises cattle, chickens, hogs and sheep.
Hutchins' life seems a throwback to a simpler time. He and his wife run the ranch with the help of their 10 children who still live at home (two have left the farm; one for a career in law, the other runs an excavation business). His 19-year-old son is in charge of the cattle and maintaining fence lines. His 17-year-old son makes certain the chickens have continual access to grass and that they eat insects and fertilize fields as they are rotated between pastures on flatbed trailers that hold their coops. Even Hutchins' 9-year-old twins have a job: The boys collect eggs—as many as 35 dozen a day.
Hutchins' farm feels as much like an animal preserve as it does a ranch. The animals live in their natural habitat and are treated with compassion. He doesn't let his children yell at the livestock or abuse them in any way. This may seem pointless considering that each steer or hog will meet the same fate as its corn-fed, factory farm counterpart, but Hutchins believes that a stress-free animal produces the best-tasting meat.
I begin to have second thoughts about killing a chicken—though not because of the act itself. Having grown up on a farm, I have no romantic notions about the life of farm animals. Those were snuffed out of me when, as an 8-year-old, I tearfully lead General Chico, my show lamb who had just won me a blue ribbon, up the ramp to the slaughterhouse. The lamb had no idea where he was going, but I did. Never again did I name an animal that would one day wind up wrapped in butcher paper.
My reservations about poultricide are more about taste. There's no way my chicken will live a stress-free existence in my backyard—not with my boys—and the last thing I want is tough, stringy meat. Then again, I've dehorned cattle, cut off their testicles and pushed them on daylong drives across mountains and valleys—and their meat tasted better than any I have had since.
One can quibble with his methods, but whatever Hutchins is doing, it's working. His business has doubled within the last five years—he can barely keep up with the demand for his products, he says.
Still, there are challenges. The state of Texas does not allow producers to sell raw milk away from their property, forcing those who want Hutchins' goat milk to come to the ranch. To Hutchins, this makes no sense. He and other producers plan to meet with legislators this fall to devise a new policy that will regulate the production and sale of raw milk.
We drive down past the reservoir where his children are playing and stop in front of a pasture where his pigs are wallowing in a moat of black mud. Hutchins' 19-year-old son is in the field, repairing fence line. I wonder if his path will be like mine, and his two older brothers, who have left the farm for the city.
"People sense we've lost something—in the way we eat, the way we treat the environment and the way we live our lives," says Hutchins as we watch his cattle graze in the gloaming of late afternoon. "I have people who come out here and ask if they can just sit down on one of our picnic benches and listen to the quiet. They want to slow down, to appreciate what nature has given them, and that's what we provide."
I never do get my chicken.
The day I am set to buy the chicken, I tell my neighbor about it, and he starts wincing.
"A chicken?" he asks. "Here?"
He looks at his immaculately manicured yard and then toward his glass paneled door. Inside, our neighbors are engaged in a homeowners association meeting, raising issues about the townhomes where we live. "If I went in there and told them you were thinking about getting a chicken," he says, "they would go through the roof."
I tell him that urban chicken farming is catching on and that chickens make great pets. Besides, I only plan to keep it for a short time and then make it my dinner.
But he won't budge. So I never do get a chicken.
But I meet a beekeeper in Lakewood who collects and sells local honey, a gardener in Balch Springs who oversees an organic produce co-op that includes 22 families, and an East Dallas forager who sells wild mushrooms and herbs to downtown chefs who are looking to mix more local ingredients into their menus. "It's bubbling here," says beekeeper Brandon Pollard, who keeps chickens in his front yard and grows his own vegetables. "There's so many people talking about it, wanting to do it. We're riding this big wave."
Pollard talks about the eat-local movement with an evangelical zeal, and he does his best to spread the word, dressing up in a bee costume every Saturday to sell his honey at the Dallas Farmers Market and spread the eat-local gospel. There's a wine bar called Veritas on Henderson Avenue that sells local goat cheese, Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in East Dallas has an organic gardening program, and there are co-ops and community gardens popping up all over the metroplex.
Eating local seems doable in Dallas. There are nearly a dozen farms within 100 miles that offer weekly or monthly subscription services where, for a fee, consumers can pick up or have delivered to their homes a basket of produce, fruit, milk, eggs, meat and other farm products. Another option is to buy a plot in one of several community gardens that are supervised by expert gardeners. And finally, there are the farmers markets in McKinney, Coppell and Dallas.
"This whole emphasis on knowing where your food is coming from really gained traction last year with reports of E. coli and other food going bad," says Brian Cummings of eatgreendfw.com, a new online market for locally produced food. "We haven't quite caught up to some places where this is more established, but we're getting there."
Dallas may never catch up to locales like San Francisco—where you can pay to have someone build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it and harvest it—but there are now several restaurants that offer locally grown items on their menus. The new Oak Cliff restaurant Bolsa is attempting to go all local.
I did manage—sans home-grown chicken—to eat local for one week, complementing the rib-eye steak and lamb I bought at Rehoboth Ranch with the aged San Pedro cheese and drinkable mango yogurt that I got from Lucky Layla and the eggplant and spinach I bought at the East Dallas Community Garden. At the Dallas Farmers Market, I bought okra and squash from Three Crosses Ranch near Waco, which identifies itself as a rural heritage farm, meaning they plow their fields with teams of horses and use recycled rainwater to water their crops.
I bought green peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and onions from Lemley's Farm near Canton and purchased whole wheat pasta, tomato sauce and jelly from Lucido's Farms of Dallas.
I can't say that I will never eat a Big Mac again, or that I am a complete convert to localism. It's expensive and at times inconvenient, unless you raise or grow a good part of what you eat. It's been said that a fork is the most powerful tool in agriculture—and when my wife and I picked up our forks for Sunday dinner, we were making a choice to eat local. To do our bit for the environment, for slow food, for a healthier way to sustain ourselves.
We ate the chicken I had bought from Robert Hutchins; it was basted in Texas olive oil, with sweet potatoes covered in butter from Lucky Layla dairy. We washed it down with fresh goat milk, and for dessert we had custard apple yogurt. It was a simple meal—not too much food, but it satisfied. I knew the farmers who had produced everything I had on my plate. And by embracing the you-are-where-you-eat mantra of localism, I felt, perhaps for one of the few times since leaving my family's farm, a connection to a city.
It's that feeling that I want for my kids—that same sense of place that I knew as a boy. Which is why, after the meal, I phoned Todd Moore at Lucky Layla Dairy to tell him I planned to bring my boys to see him next week. After all, I have to make good on my debt.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.