Over at Sunset Magazine, they’ve been conducting a bit of an experiment the past few years that only a California media concern with acres of their own property in sunny Menlo Park could pull off. Starting in 2007, the editors and gardeners on staff have done the locavore ethos one better by attempting to grow, raise, ferment, and produce all the food and drink for a harvest meal right in their backyard. The project is called the One-Block Diet, and as Sunset food editor Margo True tells Grub Street, “We didn’t realize when we started that this was going to become urban homesteading. I guess that’s what you’d call it now.” The project spawned a blog, and in March 2011 Ten Speed Press is releasing their book about it called The One-Block Feast. Margo sat down with Grub Street to tell us about all the trials and tribulations of a group of magazine people teaching homesteading by example.
Where did the idea stem from, for the One Block Diet? Were you just trying to do Alice Waters one better?
Margo True: It came partly from the fact that I’d just moved here from New York, and I came to realize just how important local eating was to people out here. It’s become kind of important in New York, but it was so much more entrenched here for a greater number of years. This goes back about four years, when I had just arrived here. Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had just come out, and that book Plenty about the 100-mile-radius diet – and several restaurants here on the peninsula were doing special 100-mile-radius menus. The word locavore had also just been put into the New Oxford American dictionary. So it seemed like the idea was suddenly everywhere.
I thought, how we could do a new angle on this? And then, why not just a one-block diet, eating only out of the backyard?
We did our first plantings in June of 2007. We made wine, we had some vegetables, but then we planted some other things that wouldn’t bear fruit until the following year, like hops and barley for beer, which had to be planted in the winter. So it wasn’t until the second year that we had our first real summer feast, in 2008.
Tell us about the different teams involved, which were new this year, and what were they trying to produce.
Well there are now 15 people at the magazine involved, and 25 separate projects. We have Team Bee, Team Cheese, Team Chicken, Team Cow, Team Garden, Team Escargot, Team Mushroom, Team Salt, etc. We started off the project with the idea that we would make everything we needed for a big summer dinner. Normally, as a good gardener, you see what can grow and then decide what to cook and eat. We worked backwards, deciding what we really wanted to eat, and planted that, and crossed our fingers. We worked with the garden department, to come up with some ideas.
First we needed some kind of cooking fat. We thought of planting peanuts, and grinding them up. We thought of corn. Then we realized we had all these olive trees around on the property. [More on that in a sec.] We decided we’d press our own olive oil. It didn’t take long to decide just to start raising honeybees, for a sweetener. We bought a baby colony, called a nuke, meaning that the queen has already been introduced to her colony. But we’ve had a lot of changes in our bee world. Many complications. But this happens with each of our projects… it’s like going down a rabbit hole into this whole separate world. Each of these things – cheese making, beekeeping, winemaking – is such an ancient art, it’s so absorbing and wonderful.
This year we added Team Cow. Up until now we had been using the best organic milk we could find, which we decided was cream-top milk from Straus. As time went on it just seemed like it would be so great to have our own cow. And we’ve learned so much, about how the milk changes from season to season, and from day to day. And cows are just the sweetest animals. We actually break our one-block rule for the cow, though. We found out that we could, in fact, keep a cow in the yard in Menlo Park. But we realized very quickly that the work involved was really beyond any of us with day jobs. And a cow only gives milk if it’s continually impregnated, at least once a year. Let alone the delivering-the-calf part. We couldn’t have a herd. And then most dairy farmers are also in the veal business, and Sunset magazine becoming a veal producer, well…
Have you killed an animal?
Well, the whole idea from the beginning was to do something that you could do in your average suburban backyard. So we decided to use chickens for their eggs, not their meat, and they produce far more food as egg-laying chickens anyway.
The truth is we’re kind of wimpy. And not that many of our readers are that comfortable with killing a chicken. But the subject has certainly come up. It’s a major controversy on Team Chicken. We’ve discussed killing the chickens when they stop laying, but that hasn’t happened yet. But yes, the time is likely coming. We’ll probably be taking a course in chicken culling.
What were some of the major difficulties you faced?
The biggest disappointment of this whole effort was these olive fruitfly maggots, which are a huge problem on the peninsula. We have 21 olive trees on the property, planted in the 50s if not earlier. They’re actually too tall and huge to pick that easily. But there are a lot of untended trees around, and these olive fruit flies lay their eggs inside the olives. So none of our own olives have been usable. We had to break our rule again and went to the Santa Cruz Mountains, picked olives, and we took them to a press. We had about 800 pounds, and produced 20 gallons of olive oil. So we still haven’t run out.
We’re treating a few of the trees with an organic pesticide so we hope we might have some usable olives next year. I’m not that confident about it though.
So how did this year’s dinner turn out?
Oh really well. It was more of a big lunch. And we had all of this great stuff, like eggplants and tomatoes and we had wheat leftover from the winter. So we made a bunch of pizzas and salads. And we went on a milking expedition (to Hollister, where the cow is). We had strawberry crème fraiche ice cream, and strawberries. And we had wine and beer that we made.
What would you do differently next summer?
Right now we’re thinking about the cool season meals. For winter harvesting we’ve planted cauliflower, mustard greens, chicory, radicchio, dandelion greens, cabbages, kale, and some cover crops. And even though that doesn’t sound like a lot of stuff, we found that we always have too many things and the meal becomes overly complicated. So that’s probably just enough.
And we’ve built up a pantry of stuff we’ve grown in the past. We have flour, dried chilis, cheeses, a really great pizza sauce. And we’ve got a ton of salt that we made just from fresh sea water. So yes, lots of food.
Each year it gets bigger, so next summer I’m sure will be our biggest yet.