Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Lifelong Lover of Nature, Park Slope Resident Challenges Herself to Eat Locally

Leda Meredith is a culinary adventurer. From foraging for greens as a child; to cooking meals with a kitchen made only of a heating coil, a cutting board, a pot and a mug; to spending a year eating only food produced within a 250-mile radius of her Park Slope home, it seems as though she’s done it all.

Her memoir, Botany, Ballet and Dinner from Scratch, was published late last year and chronicles her career as a dancer and her passion for nature. It is an inspiring story, peppered with recipes from her life. If you don’t already belong to a CSA and eat as locally as possible, you’ll want to after reading her book.

“I wanted to share the connection that food has always given me with community and natur
e, and hopefully to inspire people to find their own similar connections,” she said.

Meredith begins her narrative with fond memories from her childhood, spending time with her great-grandmother and her grandmother, whom she lived with in San Francisco. Every spring, the three would gather wild greens from the park across the street from their home. “We stuffed our plastic shopping bags with dandelion greens, wild mustard and Claytonia,” Meredith wrote.

Her Greek grandmothers would prepare the fresh greens with garlic and olive oil and feast on them together. These experiences every spring were a basis for the passion Meredith has as an adult, to eat locally.

“When I began to get involved in the local food movement, I realized that I already knew what it meant to eat locally and seasonally because in many ways that was what I had done with my grandmother and great-grandmother as a child,” she said.

This tradition with her grandmothers also inspired Meredith to try and do the same, with a childhood friend. The two girls collected dandelion buds, which didn’t amount to much because they were out of season, then sautéed them in butter and had them with Meredith’s parents. She also fondly recalled an overgrown garden she used to spend time in which she called “Blackberry Hill.”

At 16, Meredith moved from California to New York, on a full scholarship to American Ballet Theater’s school, and began her career as a dancer. She traveled the world and became very resourceful when cooking meals on tour.

During five weeks spent in Paris, Meredith had a hotel room to herself. “I bought a heating coil, a plastic cutting board, a small aluminum pot and a mug,” she wrote about the experience. “With my Swiss army knife, plus a fork and a spoon pilfered from the hotel restaurant, I had a kitchen.”

She even cooked a Thanksgiving meal for herself and some friends in Switzerland. Because ingredients traditional to this meal cannot be easily found in Switzerland (things like a turkey to feed 12, cranberries and pumpkin), Meredith had to work hard to track them down, eventually ordering a turkey from Zurich.

“Some of my best memories are of those kitchens on the road,” she wrote.

Over the years Meredith has taken food-related ventures others wouldn’t even dream of. She drank mint tea — steaming water and mint leaves — in Slovenia and gathered cronewort plants to make wreathes that are said to protect the homes they are hung in.

‘The 250’

In late summer 2007, Meredith began a mission to eat food from only a 250-mile radius of her Park Slope home. She called it “The 250” and started a blog to chronicle her experience. She canned and jarred food, made sauerkraut, tracked down dry beans and flour produced in New York, and even harvested a wild mushroom from the ground on Long Island.

Today, even though her year of eating locally is over, Meredith continues the challenge. “My diet is still mostly local, but not as exclusively as during The 250,” she said. “What I discovered during The 250 was that not only is eating local better for the environment and small local farms, it is also fabulous food. By definition the ingredients are fresher and perfectly in season. Why would I want to eat any other way?”

And hasn’t only impacted the way she eats. The 250 has permeated other aspects of Meredith’s life. “It has made me much more aware of how my daily choices impact the world around me, not just food but things like whether or not to buy new things,” she explained.

Meredith’s own personal quest has also led others to eat locally. “My dad has started going to his local farmers’ market, and several friends have joined CSAs and say I inspired them to do so,” she noted. “I’ve gotten wonderful responses from readers who were inspired by the book, including some who’d never cooked before but went ahead and made some of the recipes in the book.”

For any readers who want to start their own local eating diet, Meredith has the following advice: “Go to the Greenmarkets, join a CSA — you can find one near you by going to — if you can, grow some food in a garden or even on a window sill. Visit and check out the Locavore's Guide to New York City.”

As she wrote in her final chapter, “I wanted to find out what this region tasted like. I didn’t count on falling in love with it.” You might just fall in love with it too.

Botany, Ballet and Dinner from Scratch was published by Heliotrope Books. Meredith’s second book, What Here Tastes Like, will be available later this year.

Photos courtesy of Leda Meredith

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