Two years ago, my husband and I made a big decision: We packed out of our wood-shingled Silverlake house and headed to the high desert of Joshua Tree to the boarded-up spider den of a cabin we had just closed escrow on. We traded Moonjuice and Sqirl for the Home Depot pro desk, and a big date night out is now sushi at the local Travelodge motel. My eyes opened to the fact that it was going to take a lot of creativity to maintain a balanced and healthyish lifestyle here.
First things first: The answer to staying healthy in a food desert is not to simply drone in all the supplies you need, but to find a way to work with what you’ve got. Support any local food systems, no matter how small or obscure. Barter with your neighbors—I swap our Wonder Valley olive oil for eggs from the neighbor next door who keeps chickens. Adjust your diet to your region, even if that means eating less meat or fish. Learn about native plants and get outside and forage. In knowing that restaurant options are painfully limited, that extreme care went into sourcing every ingredient and mindfulness to cooking it, there’s decadence to this simplified way of living and eating. Here are some other lessons I’ve learned along the way about living the good life in a rural place:
Make your kitchen your favorite restaurant
I take pleasure in cooking and eating, and, chances are, if you’re reading Bon Appétit and Healthyish, you do to. When we moved to a food desert, my kitchen had to replace a lot of the restaurants we said goodbye to. So I bought their cookbooks, and I bought things I wouldn’t have been able to justify in LA: new knives, a juicer, and a tortilla press. We built my dream wood-burning outdoor kitchen, and we’re sharing our space more than we ever did before with friends, neighbors, and visitors. And, when we need to mix it up, we barbecue or picnic in the national park behind out house.
Get your pantry in shape
My pantry looks like I’m part of a back-to-the-land movement or preparing for an apocalypse. Big mason jars of bulk dry goods like rice, beans, lentils, nuts, grains are obvious sundries— but I make sure their quality is extraordinary. A lot of my favorite farmers in LA will ship directly to me: Fat Uncle Farms almonds, Rancho Gordo beans, Koda farms rice, spices from March in SF, and Canyon Coffee. I justify my generous food-shopping budget by remembering how little we eat out. I load up on supplies at Asian grocers to scratch an itch for a bowl of pho or curry. And did you know that Amazon carries Red Boat fish sauce and yuzu kosho? Quantity, quality, and diversity are the pillars of my pantry. It also helps that I have a bottomless supply of Wonder Valley olive oil.
Buy a cooler
We splurged on a Yeti cooler, and it’s worth its weight in gold. Roadtrips have become foraging expeditions. I haul back cases of wine, cheese, produce, fish, and meat. I love discovering regional specialties like dried chile peppers in Santa Fe or foraged bay leaves and rosehips from Maine. When I travel, I never come back empty handed.
Befriend your local health food store
I’m extremely lucky to have the Joshua Tree health food store and Saturday farmers’ market, both of which are small but mighty. The small-town independent grocer is your best ally. Go in, make friends with the buyer, and tell them five products you love that you would want to see in the shop. You’ll have easy access to the things you love, and they’ll get a loyal patron.
Fight hanger with big batch cooking
Sometimes it’s 3 p.m. and we realize we forgot to eat—this is no man’s land for most restaurant options by us. I try to keep an arsenal of big batch items for when hanger strikes the Carroll family. Every Sunday, I roast a chicken for supper and make a stock with the bones. The chicken goes into quick dishes like tacos or Caesar salads or more elaborate dishes like mole. I might use the stock for a braising liquid. I soak and cook beans for our #1 dish in hanger defense: greens, beans, and eggs.
Prep like a chef
To avoid kitchen fatigue and meal planning ruts, have some staples in your fridge. I ferment chiles for hot sauce and make krauts, pickle mustard seeds, make a monstrous amount of salt preserved lemons, brown my butter, and make homemade pestos and jams. This condiment toolbox steps up everyday cooking in an unbelievable way. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to grow an herb garden out here, but hats off to you if you have that as part of your reserve.
Embrace the limitations
As strange as this may sound, it’s the limitations I love the most about living out here. The lack of options and resources forces you to roll up your sleeves and figure things out on your own. There’s never an internal struggle over making plans, picking a restaurant, or what to cook. It’s the anti-F.O.M.O. There’s a freedom and creativity in that.