Sunset magazine’s ‘One-Block Feast’ takes local cuisine to the next level
It began with the idea of an end-of-summer feast—though this wasn’t just your average backyard barbecue. Taking the local food movement to its extreme, the staff of Sunset magazine set out to prepare an entire meal from ingredients they had grown, produced or raised themselves in a backyard-sized plot at Sunset’s Menlo Park office. This meant they not only would have to make do without common ingredients like baking soda or vanilla, but they also would produce their own fat, flour and sweetener—starting with olive trees, a wheat crop and bees.
When August arrived and the team members sat down at a garden-side table, their efforts were rewarded with epicurean delights such as corn soup with roasted poblanos and zucchini blossoms, pattypan squash with eggs, cantaloupe sorbet and summer wheat beer. But though the meal was a success, the project had just begun. While the Syrah was fermenting in bottles, the hens continued to lay eggs and the beehives dripped with golden honey. The team’s success at making fresh chive cheese had ignited a quest to explore different, more complex varieties of fromage—and the idea that they would actually adopt their own Jersey cow. After they’d harvested the summer vegetables, they began to think of fall crops, which led to a fall menu, and beyond.
Led by Margo True, Sunset’s food editor, the team had been documenting the project since its beginning on their blog, “The One Block Diet.” After winning a James Beard Award (deemed by Time magazine to be “the Oscars of the food world”) and gaining a wide readership, the natural next step was to take everything they’d learned and shape it into a book. The result is “The One-Block Feast—An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table,” by True and the staff of Sunset magazine.
On Tuesday, May 17, True will appear at the Capitola Book Café to read from the book and talk about her adventures as an urban food producer. In tribute to the thriving locavore movement, the event will also feature giveaways from local food producers.
Prior to this project, True’s experience with food production had been virtually nonexistent. “All I grew in New York City was a pot of basil,” says True, who before coming to Sunset worked as an editor at Saveur and Gourmet magazine. “When I came to California, I thought the stuff under my feet was called dirt. Now I know it’s soil.”
The fact that True and most of the staffers who embarked upon this project were novices at the art and science of food production lends to the book an appeal for those who have never before dabbled in urban homesteading, or even gardening. It also makes for an entertaining read, as the narrative recounts challenges the team encountered from olive fly infestations and the perils of removing slime from garden escargot to learning that the best way to remove the chaff from wheat grain without a threshing machine is to dance the twist in rubber-soled shoes.
“We really wanted this to be for working people with full-time jobs,” says True. “It would be useful if you only planted tomatoes for the first time and made tomato salad. It was really designed to either dip into or dive all the way or anyplace in between.”
Organized around the seasons, the idea is that backyard gardeners can use the book as a reference about urban homesteading—or, better yet, team up with neighbors on their block to create true one-block feasts. The book includes step-by-step instructions for everything from basic gardening skills to beginning beekeeping. It also features seasonal planting guides, project materials and price lists.
Those without back yards to garden in can simply create meals from the recipes using local ingredients found at the farmers’ market. Because the ingredients are time-consuming to produce, the recipes themselves are relatively simply. And this is one of the benefits of the locavore movement that this book touts: by using fresh, local ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them to make a delicious meal.
This element of food quality was originally what attracted True to the idea of learning to produce her own food. But what she didn’t anticipate was that her entire relationship with food would be changed forever.
“It gives you such a huge appreciation for people who make our food well,” she said, recounting the demanding experience of creating flour from stalks of wheat. “Now I say a huge ‘thank you’ when I open a bag of flour.”
She also gained an appreciation for the variation that occurs in nature. “I loved how two eggs were never the same. Depending on the breed [of chicken], you get different colors. We had an Americana that laid green eggs. Some of the eggs were torpedo shaped—you never find eggs like that in a carton.”
Another unanticipated reward from the One-Block project was the bonding that formed as team members produced food together. “Because it was a collaboration, I got to know people I work with in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise,” says True. “If you’re serious about growing your own food, I encourage growing with others because you can grow more and share it and get to know people [in your community].”
And it seems this collaborative aspect is catching on: In conjunction with the book release, Sunset launched a “One-Block Party” contest, inviting neighborhood teams to submit plans to grow a summer garden then throw a block party featuring a menu using ingredients they’ve raised or made.
“We were wondering how many entries we’d get,” says True. “There were hundreds of [submissions] throughout the country, from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania—and even Vancouver.”
Sunset chose 10 finalists, each with plans to produce a local feast that boasts the bounty of their specific region. For example, a team in the Pacific Northwest is planning to dig for shellfish, catch salmon and harvest wild berries. A group of school teachers in the San Joaquin Valley will make ice cream, casseroles and cobblers—a menu True describes as “PTA food heaven.”
In a manner akin to a “reality blog,” Sunset will feature posts throughout the summer detailing the adventures of finalists at oneblockdiet.sunset.com.
“They’re so diverse,” True says, pointing out that these regional teams are a perfect example of what the locavore movement is all about. “The menus are so indicative of where they live and who they are.”
Margo True will read from “The One-Block Feast—An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table” and talk about her adventures in urban homesteading at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. This event will include giveaways from local food producers.