August 25, 2012

Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally

This interesting account is written in alternating chapters by partners Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, the Vancouver creators of the 100-Mile Diet. The book was first published as The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.

Smith and Mackinnon took a year to eat only food that had been grown or raised within 100 miles of their home. They blogged about their experiences and the blog went viral or whatever happens when a blog really catches on - people all over the country and around the world began clicking in within a month or two. The book, written in 2007, was a bestseller in Canada and won a prize for non-fiction.

It compares well to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Same idea - live for a year on local foods. Kingsolver's book had an edge of glamour and celebrity, while this one by contrast is very humble. Smith and Mackinnon's quest is intensely personal, and hard on their relationship. They're not well off and are content with little. They ate a lot of potatoes and eggs.

But they also found delicious food they hadn't used before, ranging from greens in the wild to all kinds of shellfish from the shore to exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables at nearby farms and markets. They are mostly vegetarian, and they were pretty strict with themselves. They allowed themselves to use what they already had in the house, and if they were invited out or travelling, they ate what was offered or available. Their most difficult quest in the Lower Mainland was for grain - it took them seven months to identify a grower, and during those seven months they sorely missed their bread and pancakes and tortillas. When the year was up, they mostly kept to their diet, finding they just liked it better. They put back a few favourites like lemons, rice, and beer. Their second winter was easier because they'd frozen or canned lots of produce the summer before.  

The book is overloaded with history and philosophy, which sometimes seems forced. But in general the writing is natural and real. It's pretty raw; Kingsolver's book was so "pretty" that it really inspired me to try to find more local food. This story is quite a hard one, likely more realistic to what most of us experience when we move towards local eating: more work, more preserving, missing familiar food, lots of searching, and when you do find local food, it's often more expensive.

But Smith and Mackinnon attest to what we've also found to be true. Local food is fresher and tastier and supporting a local farmer rather than a multinational is almost as satisfying as eating the food. 

August 3, 2012

A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

Anyone who's from Winnipeg and enjoys the theatre should definitely read A Fiery Soul. John Hirsch came to Winnipeg from Hungary as a war orphan at the age of 17. All his family either died at Auschwitz or were killed in the war. His early upbringing near Budapest was a culturally rich one and he transplanted some of that richness to Winnipeg, becoming a founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre and an early director at Rainbow Stage in the late 50s and 60s.

Both these theatres were formative in my life - we were taken to them as children and they kickstarted my lifelong love of drama. I saw Fiddler on the Roof at Rainbow Stage at least 40 years ago, and it feels like yesterday. Hirsch believed in educating about drama, and wherever he worked in Canada and the U.S. in the course of his eminent career, he encouraged the teaching component of the theatre company. I took Ryan to drama lessons in Winnipeg when he was 10 or 12, and also once invited a group of actors from MTC to work with the cast of Scapino and teach us commedia del arte. So many southern Manitobans have benefitted from the seeds sown by John Hirsch.

Hirsch also directed for many years at Stratford in Ontario, for CBC, on Broadway, in California and eventually around the world. He was energetic, alternative, wildly creative and intense, ruffling many feathers along the way.

This book, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, is incredibly detailed, describing the writing, budget, casting, scenery, special effects, interpersonal relationships, reviews, and audience reception of most of the 120 or so plays Hirsch directed in his life. But it's also intensely personal, never losing sight of its fascinating central figure, and I enjoyed it all. I think I had nurtured an idea that I knew a lot of plays, but realized after reading this, that I have read or seen only a handful. So many plays, so little time!