From Computer Screens to Chicken Coops: Sunset Raises Food in the Backyard–at Work

Here's the story of how the Sunset editors became farmers in the course of a year.

Margo True

One year ago, the editors at Sunset magazine embarked on a project: to host a big end–of–summer feast and grow all the food they would need in a backyard–sized plot at the Sunset headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Food Editor Margo True shares the story of the One–Block Diet.

How did Sunset came up with the idea for the One–Block Diet?
We've long been interested in local and sustainable food. Last spring there seemed to be a real upsurge in writing about the subject: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had just been published, and so had Plenty, by a couple of Canadian journalists who followed a 100–mile diet. It also seemed as though half the restaurants in the Bay Area were doing 100–mile menus. I was walking around our grounds in April and thought, "We have olive trees, fig trees, and we have a test garden. Why don't we just do a one–block diet? Why don't we try to grow everything we need for our own summer feast?"

How many Sunset staffers are involved?
We have 10 teams: Team Kitchen, Garden, Wine, Vinegar, Olive Oil, Beer Salt, Cheese, Chicken, and Beer.

How did you decide on your crop list? Did you have any pet vegetable or fruit varieties?
We wanted to choose things that would grow really well in this area and that also tasted great, yielded predictably, and would be an all–around gratifying experience to grow. We wanted some varieties that were unusual to find in a grocery store or even in farmer's markets. My favorite example: trombetta zucchini, which often grows shaped like a trombone. The zucchini blossoms are huge, like half a foot long–they themselves look like trumpets–and when the vine starts to grow you get what looks like lime–green trombones cascading down an arch – it's stunning.

How much time does the project take up during an average work day?
Well, it kind of varies. We're making our own vinegar, for instance. I spent 20 minutes yesterday feeding the vinegar with wine. Everyone on Team Chicken visits the chickens every day.

What kind of expertise did you already have on staff that allowed you to undertake a project like this?
We know how to cook, and we know how to garden, but beyond that it was just interest. We really wanted to learn how to produce these foods!

Lots of people have backyard gardens, but one of the things that's so remarkable about the One–Block Diet is that you're also making vinegar, and wine, and olive oil. That's pretty ambitious!
We did look to consultants to help us.With the vinegar, for instance, the cookbook author Paula Wolfort is our consultant. She gave us her 40–year–old mother. ["Mother" refers to something that's almost like a "starter" for vinegar, not a parent! It's a sign that bacteria in the mixture are working on converting the wine into vinegar. It forms a slick top layer that floats on the vinegar.–Ed.]

Who are you inviting to the feast?
We are probably going to have several dinners, since we're trying to use the food as soon as we pick it rather than store it in the fridge. We're serving 12 to 15 people at a time and inviting our consultants and other people involved in sustainable agriculture.

The staff has also been blogging the process. What kind of reader feedback have you received?
What's cool about the responses we're getting is that they're often very passionate–and plus, they're full of good advice. And that's cool because it means we're becoming community: the readers are getting involved in this project and helping make it better.

What's been the most challenging part of this project?
One of the chicks nearly died – Ruby, the runt of the batch. I was way too emotionally invested. I was coming out here and checking on her at midnight. Now she's a little Napoleon, the bossiest of the bunch.

What's been the most surprising thing you've encountered since beginning this project?
So many things! But one of them is: If you flip a chick on its back and scratch its chest, it will stretch out and relax like it's in a lawn chair.

One of the other things that we've noticed is that as we've gone along, we've become a little community of food growers. We tell each other stories about the chickens, what's happening with the vinegar, the weird things you need to do to wine to help it along. Also, all the projects need to be constantly nourished – you feed the vinegar wine, you feed the chickens kitchen scraps, you feed the garden manure – you feel like you have a connection to something living in every case. And in a weird way you end up not feeling so lonely. You're caring for something else. It makes you feel useful.

The wonderful books that have been published on eating locally have been really inspirational, but I think the thing we haven't gotten from them is actually how to do it–pragmatic instruction. And that's what we hope this project will do: give people a really easy, fun, way to get engaged.

But not everyone else can do what Sunset does at their workplace. Do you have any advice for those who'd like to incorporate local eating into their own lives?
The main point of this project is that our average Sunset reader can do it. We've designed it to be very doable.

You can choose to dip in or dive in. For instance, you can buy tomatoes from the farmers' market and make our tomato and herb salad recipe, or you could plant the tomatoes, or you could grow olives and press them for the olive oil to go on top of the tomatoes. And everything you grow are designed to fit in a backyard–size plot.

Charlene Dy
Aug, 2008
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