I recently discovered the joys of butter. No, Paula Deen didn't take me hostage and force me to eat deep-fried butter balls.
Butter and I have had a tumultuous relationship. After developing a sort of allergy to it in high school, I cut out all dairy from my diet. Soon after, I become a devout vegan for five years and embraced buttery spread alternatives--non-GMO and organic--to serve as butter's place-holder when the occasion called for it. Yet, something made me feel a bit uneasy when I used a substitute, regardless of the supposed health benefits.
I consider myself a staunch and, at times, an overzealous local food advocate. I grew up in an area with farms. I've worked on an organic farm. I write about food. I regularly attend farmers' markets. I support organic and local whenever possible. I wrote my thesis on local food. I think I own almost every book and cookbook on local food. It's an obsession. But it wasn't until my life as a vegan and locavore came to a crossroads that I began to think about butter: Is it possible to really support my local economy, maintain my commitment to the environment and be vegan?
The answer, to a large extent, is yes. If you make connections with farmers, eat seasonally and local and have access to good fruits and vegetables, you can have a balanced and healthful diet. And, you can live without the extras: the fake cheeses that are known for their non-melting properties and the pseudo-dairy spreads. Yet, when vegan baked good recipes called for these specialty items, I cringed at the lengthy list of ingredients; many had upwards of 10, including soy, corn and sugar-beet derivatives. Where had these items been sourced? How many people did it take to make that one item? How much energy was used to extract and make these products? Not to mention the cost.
Besides, reading the labels of animal-free products and interviewing small farmers has ultimately changed my perspective on dairy. In July 2010, I visited the nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis for an article on faith and farming. Mother Telchilde Hinckley, who, among many of her jobs, oversees the state-certified raw milk dairy, explained to me the almost spiritual connection between cow and human during hand milking.
"People come today, and many of them have never touched a large animal, and to have the opportunity to hand milk, it's one of those opportunities that can be life-changing in a certain way," said Hinckley. "You'd rarely...