11 November, 2008

'Plenty' - Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

Around Melbourne, the term 100-Mile is readily associated with Paul Mathis and his soon-to-close cafe in Melbourne Central. But it wasn't really a cafe; it was a high-end restaurant, incongruously placed in the midst of a student entertainment hub (comprising a bar with almost-constant happy hour; a huge cinema; ten-pin bowling with bar; pinball parlour (or whatever they're called these days!); food court with wi-fi) and notoriously hard to spot, with the concealed entrance carried over from the site's previous incarnation as SOS, Mathis' vegaquarian restaurant.

In 2005, two Canadians embarked on a smaller-scale, more personal project, which, while grounded in the same principles, was arguably more successful. And they wrote a book about it. Often, when people decide post-experience to turn a meaningful journey into a book it becomes a sappy, frustrating vessel. Happily, Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon were already writers, so they relate their challenge with skill and beauty. James in particular has a wonderful knack for descriptive writing, whether with reference to food and flavours, landscape or emotion.

Their book carries a measured weight of facts of figures, recounting initially the fact that inspired the project: that food frequently travels between 2400 and 4800 kms from farm to plate. Not only is this massively environmentally damaging, it also means we lose touch with the nature around us, with the seasons, with the joy of eating produce at its best and varying our diet according to what we can pluck from the ground.

From their first, princely meal at a cost of $US121, to potatoes done every way known, to the baking frenzy that ensues when finally, after seven months, they find a local source of flour, this book continues to exude the authors' enthusiasm, belief and determination for what they're doing, and keep the reader engaged in the same quest.

It would be a tough call, taking on the same diet. But it can only be beneficial to pay more attention to where your food is coming from. Farmers markets and independent butchers are a great place to start.



  1. The 100 Mile Cafe is closing or has closed down - I wonder what that says about Melbourne's interest in eating local? I actually think Melbourne is probably a pretty good place to eat local, given the abundance of produce and specialty food retailers we have - and the fact that we could still get good beer and wine! But the practical implications for most people would that it would be too expensive and too damn time-consuming. Thanks for reminding me I really want to read this book!

  2. I so agree with you about where the 100 Mile 'cafe' went wrong. But I'd go further and say that the general vibe of both incarnations just didn't sit right. It was a restaurant with an identity crisis.

    Good idea - wrong execution.

    Wonder how his next venture will pan out?

  3. Hey Lisa - I don't think 100MC closing is directly related to a disinterest in local eating; I think AOF's got the right words - wrong vibe, wrong execution, big identity crisis.

    It's a good point you make, that Melbourne has a lot to offer in terms of local eating. I should broaden the post a bit with some simple tips on incorporating local eating where you can. The authors of 'Plenty' earn huge kudos for staying within their limit for a year, but even commiting to sourcing a few products locally makes a difference.

    AOF - From the sounds of things Mathis has a couple of new things stirring in the pot...there's the pub redevelopment on Flinders St; the A'Beckett St building; and is there something about an eco-supermarket?

  4. 100 Mile was riding a popular wave, for ethical or business reasons, and yeah, the location and execution were distinctly odd... but locavorism is a rather mixed-up philosophy for some audiences anyway, with little allowance for the environmental impact of individuals individually sourcing local ingredients. Supporting local producers is a great idea, but there are times when things produced elsewhere have a lesser total-planet-burden by the time they reach us.

    Thanks for mentioning Plenty. Hope to get to read it soon:)

  5. Hey Duncan. More interesting thoughts. Have you posted about locavorism your blog? I'd be interested to read more.

    Outside of environmental benefits, locavorism also tends to promote seasonality, and I think being in touch with what's right to eat right now promotes a much better relationship with food, which would have all sorts of positive knock-on effects for health etc.

    Good to hear so much interest in 'Plenty' too. It's a bit hard to source in bookshops, but City Library stocks a copy :)