02/13/2012 06:58 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

Eating Locally, Slowly But Surely

It didn't happen overnight. But one day not long ago I looked down at my cutting board and realized that everything on it -- each ingredient for the soup I was making -- was grown right here on the island; some in my own backyard, some a mile up the road, and some in the next town over. And this being winter (such as it is), I was even more tickled. I felt a strange sort of "my, how time flies" sensation, realizing that four years ago the concepts of eating and living locally and sustainably were just that to me -- concepts. I recognized in them something I longed for, though I couldn't have articulated that then. I just knew my life was noisy and busy, and it needed to be simpler and more connected to the natural world.

It's funny when I think about it now, because coming from the on-demand, fast-paced arena of my old life, I thought I could transform myself into a model sustainable eater overnight when I moved to Martha's Vineyard. I was used to getting things done quickly so I threw myself into my new quest. I drove around and found the farms that sold fresh eggs (and the two or three with freezers full of bacon and pork chops and ground beef); I followed friends to their secret watercress steams and plucked mussels off of rocks in hidden coves. I watched a neighbor milk her goats, and another make cheese. I participated in Eat Local weeks and Living Local festivals, don't you know! I planted a little vegetable garden as soon as I could.

But still I was mostly dependent on the grocery store. (And, unfortunately, very dependent during the times I was developing recipes for two cookbooks, since I needed to work with standard products that would be the same for everyone across the country.) But I kept moving in a good direction.

First I joined a CSA, then I found a way to grow more of my own vegetables, and then I moved to a house where I could truly grow (and even sell!) a lot of vegetables -- and keep laying hens, too. I started learning to put things by, and to keep greens growing through the winter. This fall, I successfully cured and stored our huge crop of onions (we still have some!). I froze excess green beans and corn kernels and roasted tomatoes. I dug up our rutabagas and turnips in December and wrapped them carefully to keep in the fridge for months. We've got dried cranberry beans in the pantry, dried coriander seeds on the spice shelf, our own eggs in the fridge, and arugula in the garden. Somehow, the lip-service I've always paid to "cooking seasonally" has become a reality; there are no asparagus or strawberries in my winter fridge (just a few wild raspberries in the freezer), making the anticipation and satisfaction of spring eating all the greater.

While I was stumbling along my path of discovery, good things were happening all around me -- things I benefited from just as a bystander. A hardworking group of concerned citizens formed Island Grown Initiative and Island Grown Schools and brought local chicken to all of us (through a Mobile Poultry Processor) and local farm veggies and school gardens to kids across the Island. A new dairy started up, and another began selling delicious yogurt and feta cheese. Our Farmer's Market organizers got together to extend the season and host an indoor Winter Market. Slow Food planned "Meet Your Farmer" potlucks. A gleaning group formed and collected vegetables from generous farms to deliver to elderly housing, the jail, and the Island Food Pantry. You couldn't help but become more aware of locally grown food if you were just a tiny bit open to hearing about it.

Good things take time, I've finally learned. (Patience is new to me.) Looking back now, I realize that the road to eating locally and sustainably is a slow, deliberate one -- something you grow into, rather than rush into. It's hard for all of us quick-fixers to realize that if we want to change (or want the world to change), we must take a lot of baby steps, rather than flipping a switch. But I'm optimistic, especially today, because I just watched this video that will air on national television during the Grammy Awards tomorrow night.

If you haven't seen Chipotle Mexican Grill's animated short ad ("Back to the Start"), you will truly be moved by the way the video captures (ironically, in two minutes) the lurching and inelegant transition we made in this country from small farms to factory farming, and now back (we hope) to a way of raising animals and growing food that is at least a bit more sustainable than feedlots and manure lagoons. I know that's a big Hope, and that things sometimes seem to be moving in slow motion. But if a company as big as Chipotle can source and promote sustainable food and animal welfare -- and spread the message to a huge national television audience -- then I'm thinking anything is possible. Certainly I've seen what a small community like the one I live in can do in just a few years time. And while I'm not quite as far along as I'd like to be (I'm taking a canning class next!), I've found that plodding can be pretty good for the soul -- and the stomach.

Susie Middleton is the author of The Fresh & Green Table (Chronicle Books, 2012) and Fast, Fresh & Green (Chronicle Books 2010). She blogs about cooking and growing vegetables at