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Key to enjoying diet is finding indulgent local foods

Viewpoints: Shelley Mann

My favorite meal during our eat-local experiment wasn't anything fancy.

I roasted a whole chicken stuffed with Vidalia onions and fresh rosemary, pan-fried a few hunks of homemade polenta in butter, and roasted some Georgia-grown baby carrots with local honey, butter and fresh dill. For dessert, we had a fruit salad made with strawberries picked from Washington Farms in Loganville, frozen blueberries from a coworker's grandmother's garden and peaches - the first of the season from Lane Orchards in Fort Valley, 130 miles away.

It was just a simple, straightforward supper, but it was the end result of weeks' worth of research and preparations. That I managed to cobble together a full dinner using all local ingredients was a triumph. For it to be a memorable meal taste-wise was just a bonus.

And that was only the beginning. From that first dinner, I had enough leftover roast chicken for several lunches. I added it to a bed of fresh arugula and romaine purchased at the Suwanee Farmers Market, and topped the salad with a vinaigrette made from a locally produced garlic-dill vinegar. I mixed shredded chicken into a hearty omelet with spinach and cheese. From the chicken bones, I made a rich chicken stock.

Every day was a new food adventure, and I found myself becoming more creative as the days went by.

That's not to say eating local wasn't hard work. I spent a lot more time in the kitchen every day than I normally do.

And though you're ultimately helping to save the environment by avoiding foods shipped from halfway across the country, it's hard to keep that in mind when you're driving halfway across the state trying to find local milk.

One Saturday, I decided to forego the interstate and take the back roads to Cherokee County, where I picked up a few gallons of milk and a dozen eggs from Cagle's Dairy, an educational dairy farm near Canton. It was neat being able to see the cows grazing right off the side of the road, but the trip was a bit of a disappointment. Cagle's Web site promised Clayton and Estelle's Country Market would be selling "farm fresh" milk, as well as fresh butter and cheeses. A close examination of the butter and cheeses, though, showed they were from Ohio, not Georgia.

Another Saturday, my husband and I made a day out of driving up to Helen, where we stopped at the picturesque Nora Mill Granary. Inside the tiny mill, we got to try free samples of all their home-grown products, including steaming, creamy grits and sweet, flavorful jellies.

Signs on the walls explained how the corn is processed into cornmeal and grits. We stocked up on both of those, plus a selection of jams, apple butter, mustard and popcorn kernels. It was well worth the 11⁄2 hour drive - the cornbread, crepes and polenta I made with the cornmeal were the backbone of my diet that week.

For breakfast, I ate crumbled cornbread heated with milk and drizzled in honey. A cornmeal crepe spread with a rustic basil pesto and shredded cheese, then melted in the microwave, became a favorite lunchtime treat.

For me, the key to enjoying the eat-local diet was to find a few indulgent foods to round out all the vegetables and chicken. Luckily, once we pushed the diet's radius from 100 miles to the state of Georgia, I was able to find both wine and cheese to fit the bill.

At Whole Foods Market in Duluth, I chose a bottle of chardonnay from Habersham Vineyard in Helen, as well as a hunk of cheese from the only artisinal cheese maker in the state - Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville. I picked the Thomasville Tomme, a raw cow's milk cheese with a mellow flavor and creamy, soft texture.

At 272 miles away, the cheese was one of the furthest foods from home. I enjoyed every bit of that cheese, though, and in the end, isn't that what really matters?

E-mail Shelley Mann at shelley.mann@gwinnettdailypost.com.

What We Ate:

•Dozen free-range eggs from Bay Creek Acres in Loganville ($3, 17 miles away)

•22-ounce jar of honey from Glover Family Farm in Douglasville ($7, 56 miles)

•Gallon of strawberries from Washington Farms in Loganville ($8, plus $1 bucket fee, 17 miles)

•Gallon of 2 percent milk from Cagle's Dairy in Canton ($3.50, 40 miles)

•2-pound bag of coarse-ground yellow cornmeal from Nora Mill Granary in Helen ($3.95, 68 miles)

•Cara Bites Baby-Cut Carrots from Coggins Farm in Lake Park ($1.50, 267 miles)

•Thomasville Tomme cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy in Lake Park ($6.29, 272 miles)

•Habersham 2004 Georgia Chardonnay from Habersham Vineyards in Helen ($11.99, 68 miles)

•4-pound whole chicken from Springer Mountain Farms in Mount Airy ($10, 54 miles)

•Dill-Garlic Vinegar from Serenity Gardens in Buford ($4, 13 miles)

•Kale, spinach, arugula, romaine and bok choy from It Began With a Seed Farm in Lula ($1 a pound, 40 miles)

•About 20 slices of bacon from D.L. Lee and Sons in Alma ($4.49, 240 miles)