Archive for the 'Food Storage' Category

10 Years of Food Preservation

Sharon May 31st, 2011

On June first, Eric and I and Eli (and Simon who was there in-utero) will celebrate a decade on our farm.  That’s a pretty amazing thing to me – a childhood full of moves, a young adulthood in which I changed apartments every school year – ten years is by far the longest I’ve ever been in one place. And while I had made some forays into food preservation before we moved – mostly involving alcoholic beverages (yeah, yeah, grad student stereotype come true) and condiments (homemade mustard, mint oxymel, almond milk for pouring over chocolate ice cream), the idea of seriously preserving what I actually grew hadn’t kicked in yet.  The balcony gardens I’d had in Somerville, MA hadn’t led me into serious food preservation.  Farmer’s markets just weren’t as prevalent as they are now.  Moreover, homemade food itself wasn’t as trendy.  Although I had a plan to grow and produce what we ate, I hadn’t fully made the mental leap into recognizing that one of the central steps in that process was going to be learning to put by.

I did learn it, however, the first time the zucchini exploded, the first time we had more peas than we could eat.  I learned it when our first year household budget was a grand total of 17K for Eric, Eli, me and new baby Simon.  The vast majority of that money was going to be spent on the mortgage.  3K of it was eaten up almost immediately when our well line burst.  That first year garden I planted turned out to be a big chunk of the food budget.

I found books at the library and in bookstores about food preservation, but most of them weren’t that concerned about energy usage – I wanted to know what the most efficient way to keep food was.  A lot of them didn’t seem that concerned about taste, either – yes, home canned green beans taste better than grocery store ones, but is that really the best we could do?  And they left out a lot – I was getting three gallons of milk in barter for our eggs from a dairy farming neighbor.  How do you make butter?  How long does it keep?  Another neighbor shared her garden produce – the USDA said canning pumpkin wasn’t safe anymore.  Were they right?  What else do you do with it.

I had time (or as much time as a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation and the mother of a toddler and a newborn 20 months apart ever has) more than I had money, so I could experiment.   I did experiment – a lot.  We were given a huge bag of figs, and I pickled a bunch of them.  I learned not to pickle figs.  We went to the pick-your-own to get strawberries and then dried them, because I didn’t have enough canning jars.  I learned definitely to dehydrate strawberries.  I made butter.  Because of my pregnancy, I was  throwing up every 45 minutes, and an elderly Russian lady at our synagogue suggested I try fermented foods.  Kimchi and pickles became my best friends.

Despite our tiny budget (which did get bigger after that first year), we ate well.  Actually, we ate better than we had ever eaten before.  We felt good.  Even our picky toddler ate the fresh, delicious stuff we had.  The second year, the garden got a lot bigger, and again, we learned more tricks of the trade for food preservation.  Moreover, I was more and more concerned about resource use – how did we optimize this – how did we balance our energy consumption for preservation to ensure we came out ahead of industrial food.  And how did we make it more delicious still?

It felt, in a lot of ways, like we had to reinvent the wheel.  Don’t get me wrong – I had a lot of mentors – most of all the late, great Carla Emery, who became a personal friend.  I had a long human past to go back to – after all, food preservation is one of the oldest of all human activities, long predating agriculture.  And yet, inventing it for here, on a local diet, with a modern food sensibility and concern for health and safety felt new, as much as it was very, very old.

I decided to write _Independence Days_ in large part because of an encounter with a woman at the 2007 Community Solutions conference.  She asked me what she should do to eat locally when her 20 week CSA delivery ended.  It was a familiar question – my own CSA customers asked me the same thing, or they puzzled – why was I giving them so much cabbage and garlic in the fall, more than they could eat in a week?

It occurred to me at that moment that we’d lost our attachment to the cycle of preserving, the sense that this was natural, that abundance could be met by strategies to extend its life.    The Independence Days Challenge and the book of the same name emerged from that encounter – from the recognition that others were asking the same questions I had asked about how to keep eating locally.

I’m still learning.  I still consider myself a low-level cheesemaker, with a whole host of new projects I want to try.  Since my grad-school days, I’ve done little experimentation with alcohol making – now that Eric keeps bees, I want to make mead.  I’ve got plans to try some new lamb sausages and Carol Deppe’s book _The Resilient Gardener_ has challenged me to explore squash drying more thoroughly.  Lots of new stuff to get at.

Last year, I had my best preserving summer ever – and my worst preserving autumn in years.  We went away for 10 days in early September on  trip I wouldn’t trade for the world – my kids got to see the National Zoo and Monticello, we met new friends and took our first ever family vacation that didn’t involve mostly relatives.  I got to speak in front of Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden.  Given that I suspect that kind of travel may close to us over time, I’m grateful we got it. But the one-two punch of ten days gone (and more days in catch-up) and the Jewish high holidays coming in September meant I got almost no preserving done in the early fall – and an early frost meant that I lost my chance for a lot of good things.  The fall raspberries were gone before I got more than a dozen jars preserved.  I missed some of my favorite apples,  I didn’t get enough tomato sauce done to last the winter.

As I said, I’m still learning. I suspect this year, as we add to our family will bring new imperfections and failures.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may never get it all right.  My years of Independence Day Challenges, however, have taught me to appreciate what I have done, what I do try – what has come to be part and parcel of my life, as routine as laundry and dishes.  It has taught me to count every jar with pride, and to remember that next year comes again with new possibilities.

My eighth food storage and preservation class starts today – I feel like I know more than I did for my first class, I’m better prepared.  I also feel like I’m never prepared enough – on the one hand, this stuff is important, it can be the difference between security and insecurity, sufficiency and insufficiency.  Food matters.  On the other hand, I feel just as uncertain as I suspect my students do – worried they’ll have questions I can’t answer.  But I was a teacher for a long time before I started this subject – I have come to appreciate questions I can’t answer, because they take me places I didn’t know to go.

I have rhubarb to can, rhubarb I planted a few years ago that came back despite the depredations of chickens.  I have raspberry leaves to dry for tea, and some to feed to the rabbits – they just appeared under the spruces, and we let them grow.  I have bok-choy bolting in the heat that could still make kim chi – or could be tosssed over the fence to the goats if I don’t get to it.  My place, this place I know better than any other I have lived in, is filled with abundance, tolerant of my imperfections and ready to go.

Sharon

BTW, I still have two spaces in food storage and preservation. If you’d like one, email me at [email protected]!

Too Many Little Brown Goats and Other Consequences of Spring

admin May 6th, 2011

It has been kind of quiet here, because well, it is spring, and that means that all my primary focus has shifted outside the house.  The period from May 1 to June 15 is the busiest, craziest, wildest period of the year, and the shoulder season, ie, the month of April, its biggest rival.

We have six baby goats on the ground right now, with two more does due this weekend and five more due in July. I’ll be posting the “goats for sale” list very soon – we’ll have a 1 year old buck (Goldenrod), at least one senior milking doe and at least one baby, and later in the season, we’ll have two doelings and a first freshener, as well as probably some wethers, so if you are looking for goats, here’s your place.

This is particularly true if you are looking for little brown goats.  The LBGs are pretty thick on the ground this year – in previous years it hasn’t been hard to tell the babies apart, but this year, everyone (except Calliope, Bast’s daughter)  is an LBG.  They are different, and you can tell – if they stop bouncing long enough to differentiate.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often at this stage, and so you are often fruitlessly trying to count little heads as they move at high speed around you.  So we spend a lot of time bewildered and counting fruitlessly.

We are also rapidly approaching delivery dates for the plant CSA, and our open farm day, in which we’ll have garden plants galore for sale.  That’s at our farm on Sunday, May 22 – hoping to see those of you who live in this general area there.  We’ve got lots of fun stuff planned for that day.

Besides the goat-related cuteness, we also have ducklings, chicks and one baby rabbit adding to the overall impression of acute cuteness.  And green – finally, finally, finally green.  The tulips are in bloom, the bloodroot and lungwort are flowering, the ramps, sorrel and asparagus are ready for harvest and life is GOOD.  We missed a hard frost last night, so the peaches and apricots and cherries are blooming.

It is a busy, crazy season here – every plant has to go into the ground now, yesterday or at the latest, tomorrow.  Everything needs shovelling, cutting, trimming, planting, transplanting or moving.  Add to that the fact that we are expecting more kids in our family right soon, and, well, the blogs get a lick and a promise and my best wishes.

Eric will be picking up his bees on Sunday, and that’s got a hold of his mind.  He’s fascinated by the beekeeping and still a little worried about driving in the car with 10,000 stinging insects.  My comment that this would be a bad day to get in an accident didn’t seem to help much ;-) .  Lavish hive painting by my children is underway too – I’m assuming the hives will be quite the sight!

Still, there is some stuff going on.  My 13 Ways of Looking at the Future book of essays will come out sometime in June, I’m told, and will be winging its way on to you soon.  If you’ve emailed to enquire about postage outside the US, I promise to get back to you on Monday.  If you haven’t heard about this – I’ll be publishing this directly both electronically and in paper form, and sending a copy to anyone who donates $10 or more for it.  I’ll put the button up ASAP.

Second, don’t forget about the open farm day on May 22 at Gleanings Farm 43 Crow Hill Road Delanson, NY 12053.  There will be animals for the kids to pet, scything, snacks, milking and goat care demos,  a book signing, garden tours and other good stuff.  And don’t forget baby goats!

Third, our family is looking for a couple of summer farm interns – if you’d like to spend a *working* week on our farm, email me at [email protected] and let me know what weeks you would be interested in.  You get room, board and experience, we get extra hands and new friends – it is a win-win situation.

Finally, I’m going to be offering my Food Preservation and Storage Class starting May 24, and running until the end of June – this six week, online, asynchronous (ie, you don’t have to be online at any particular time) will help you get ready for the preserving season, and also help with beginning or building up and organizing a food reserve so that you are secure in tough times.  Cost of the class is $150 and there are scholarships available to low income folks as well.  Please email me at [email protected] to reserve a space or with any questions.

Ok, back to spring – the green is calling me!  I hope it is calling you too!

Sharon

Food Production, Food Preservation, Food Storage – A Three Legged Stool

admin April 25th, 2011

Periodically someone will come up to me and denigrate one of the three things discussed here, while praising the others.  For example, someone will tell me that food preservation is simply too much work, and not worth their time, but assure me they do have a garden and store food for a crisis.  Other times, someone will tell me they don’t bother to garden because “other people will just come and steal your garden” or “gardening doesn’t pay.”  Sometimes food storage is the target – after all, the commenters observe, eventually stored food runs out, right?

While I’m always grateful to see people picking up on one or two of these principles (after all, the average American practices none of them), I do find myself troubled by the idea that one can grasp the need for and merits of one, but not another.  To me, they look like a three legged stool, on which a very basic concept – food security – rest.  And like most three legged stools, you can’t sit on it with one of the legs missing.

If we are to make by necessity or desire, a shift to a lower input society, it is necessary to take the lessons learned in other lower-input societies and ask the question – what are the major food security issues likely to be?  We already see from the current recession that food issues are more acute than they were anticipated to be – the newest set of numbers is likely to show one in every seven Americans and one in every three children, for example, requiring food stamps.  Six million plus American households have no income at all except food stamps.  Food pantries and soup kitchens are dramatically overdrawn – and need cannot be measured by output, because demand so dramatically exceeds it.  And yet, just a few years ago at the beginning of the recession, we were told that food insecurity was unlikely to be a major issue in the US as it was in the Great Depression.  It turns out that in reality, food insecurity has risen much faster than expected, and the food crisis in the global south is playing out in parts of the developed world as well, and stands only to get worse.

It is simply clear that food is going to be a central site on which this crisis plays out – and because of this, it is necessary that we take lessons from our own history and from other societies that use less energy in their food system to begin to predict what will be needed.  What we know, doing so, is that we will not have a viable food future without all three legs of the stool standing solid.

Food production is probably the easiest sell – gardening is trendy, it is pleasurable, and we all know that food straight from the garden is both more delicious and more nutritious than broccoli from the grocery store that is five or six days old.  Heck, the salad you pick outside your door even has it over the good stuff from the farmer’s market.  Still, there are plenty of people who don’t grasp the importance of gardening, or who don’t think their gardens can make a difference in food security.

Let’s look at the evidence, however.  We know, for example, that in 1944, US Victory Gardens together produced as much produce as all the truck and produce farms in the entire US – fully half of the vegetables in the US came from victory gardens.  We know that urban gardening in cities in the Global South (and historically in the Global North during times of crisis including the Great Depression, Europe after WWII, Russia after the Soviet Collapse etc…) has helped make the difference between nutritional inadequacy and adequacy.  Consider, for example, in Tanzania, where involvement with urban food production means that poor children whose families garden and/or raise livestock have nutritional status equal to middle class children.

The historical evidence is very, very clear – in difficult times (which, realistically are likely forthcoming, and in many respects already here), gardening is a basic way that people who are struggling put food in the table.  To those who observe that urban and suburban gardeners can’t grow all their food – this is absolutely true.  What small gardens do is make the difference between an unremitting diet of staples and a nutritious, tasty diet.  They can grow chiles to spice their food, greens to keep their children from getting sick from nutritional deficits, fruits to add sweetness and flavor to bland diets.  Add small livestock living on garden wastes and human food wastes, and as long as you are able to buy a small amount of staple grains in a market, you can live.  All of us know that meat and veggies are expensive – for poor people, affording these things is a much bigger issue than getting ahold of some staple foods.

For larger households, gardens can provide staples as well – although we are accustomed to seeing grains as our primary staple, root crops have operated, particularly in cold climates, as staple foods – “vegetables” doesn’t mean “lettuce” – it  can also mean staple foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets and other filling root crops that supported the people of Northern Europe for decades.

At both the household level and the regional level, a sweeping view of gardening is best – in much of the global south gardens cover rooftops, balconies, marginal space along roads and railroad tracks, and it includes marginal weeds on which local livestock pasture, fallen tree branches that provide fire wood or brush for staking and building, and perennial crops that belong to the whole community – bamboos whose shoots are taken home from the park, fruiting street trees, and wild edibles.  Consider the difference that planting food-producing street trees alone could make.  Perennial edibles represent a kind of garden bank account on which the community can draw on for pleasure and upon need.

Ok, we’ve established the not-very-difficult case for why we need to garden.  Why is food preservation a fundamental pillar?  The reason is pretty simple – in just about every place on earth, there is a season in which not much grows that well. It could be the dry season, the hot season or the cold snowy one, but gardens slow down or stop, and not much fresh is coming out them.  Even in places where there is year round production, there are also bumper years and bad years – years in which everything does well, and years in which everything – or some important things do badly.  The ability to preserve what you grow for periods in which such things are not available is central to the project of food security – because most of us can count on some periods where we either will not be able to garden or where not much is available.

Moreover, one of the examples to look at is that of the global south, where food is wasted in more or less the same quantities as it is here.  The difference between the Global North and the Global South is pretty dramatic, however – overwhelmingly almost half the food produced in the Global South is lost because it cannot be preserved.  Lack of refrigeration or adequate storage, lack of techniques for food storage, problems with transportation.  In the Global North, more than half of all food wastage is lost after it is transported from the field, in stores and in our kitchens.  This gives us a sense of our future – we may find ourselves with a great deal of food loss due to problems of preservation, unless we can support and build the infrastructure for preserving food in a lower-energy input society.

That infrastructure doesn’t have to be industrial – it might be simple as large solar food dryers and better storage to keep grains away from rodents.  It would include networks for delivery and distribution by bicycle, water, rail or other ways, so that food doesn’t rot in the fields.  It might include strategies used in the pre-oil era, in which families took their “vacation” to help harvest and preserve crops like hops or fruit, acting as migrant laborers in exchange for fresh air, accomodations and good food.  It may also include something like the rural dachas of Russia, where urban dwellers grow their gardens and preserve homegrown and wild foods for the long winter to come.

I wrote _Independence Days_ in large part in response to a question a woman once asked me. I was speaking at a conference, and the woman, an urban dweller, asked me what she was supposed to eat once her 22 week CSA subscription ran out, and what people had eaten in the past.  I observed that they ate preserved and stored food and she asked me who did that – beyond Clarence Birdseye, the answer that was that there are some small producers out there that to produce high value (and usually high cost) preserved foods, but for the most part, this was a do-it-yourself job – the next logical step in eating out of your garden was to take what is abundant and make it last.

You can, of course, purchase preserved foods, and store them that way, but this is much more expensive proposition, and it isn’t a terrifically strenuous one.  Despite the rhetoric of standing over a hot canning kettle, the actual work load of slicing some fruit and sticking it in a solar dehydrator or an electric one, or canning up some chicken broth is not terrifically demanding.  Many people hear the word “food preservation” and think “canning” – but while canning is one strategy for preserving food, it isn’t the only or best one.  Indeed, if one couldn’t survive without canned food, the human race would not exist, since it was invented only in the 19th century. It is a lovely addition to people’s tool box, but root cellaring, in garden-storage in clamps and with mulches, dehydrating, lactofermentation, and the rest of the toolbox will get you everywhere you need to go if you prefer.

What about food storage?  What does that have to do with anything?  Most of us have fond memories of grandma and her homemade pickles or whatever else – we may think it is too hard or too much work, but we can see the point.  Food storage, however, having  pantry that can sustain an extended period without a trip to the store, well, that seems weird.  Our society does a great deal to make it seem weird, pushing us to view stored food as the territory of survivalists with bunkers and guns.

This is very strange, because of course, storing food is one of the most basic things humans do – first they preserve it, then they put it by for years of shortfall.  Consider the Biblical Story of Joseph, who tells Pharoah to put up food for the days when “there will be no food in all the land.”  It was considered a simply responsible and necessary thing to do – in fact, food preservation and the storage of food for the cold season is an older human activity even than agriculture – we have been reserving our bounty for times of hunger for as long as we have been human, or nearly.

Why might we need stored food?  It could be as basic as a period when we are ill or out of work, and unable to shop.  It could be a supply interruption or a natural or non-natural disaster (think Japan) that contaminates or prevents food from reaching us.  It could be a medical crisis that require isolation and reduced contact and makes shopping risky.  It could be a short term power outage or a several month supply interruption.  Indeed, most of us experience periods in our lives when stored food is or would be valuable.  This is so normal that the US government, the US and International Red Cross and most governments recommend that people store food.

It is something that must be done in anticipation of a crisis – in a crisis, storing up food when shortages are already present is viewed as hoarding and can be discouraged, penalized with social consequences, or outright illegal.   In order to ethically ensure a reliable food supply during a period of constraint, you need to have a reliable supply of food all the time.  Moreover, all the evidence suggests that we waste the least amount of stored food when we base our storage on what we eat already, and include it in our daily diets and rotations.

The line between preservation and storage is very fine – once you have done the work of preserving food, you need to know how to store it.  Some people’s food storage consists entirely of things they have grown themselves, other people rely heavily on food produced elsewhere.  Since most of us rely on dry staples, often these will be grains produced in other places, but this varies from situation to situation.

Preserving food is not like preserving works of art, or insects in amber – it doesn’t last forever.  So preserved food must be properly stored, in order to maximize both its lifespan and its nutritional value.  With grains, this may be a matter of putting them in air-tight containers in a place without wild temperature fluctuations or too much moisture for years.  For lactofermented food, it may be finding a cool basement spot or underground spot to allow it to last a few months.  Without the knowledge to both store food correctly and integrate in your diet, all your money or labor in preservation and purchase is wasted – instead of reducing waste by preserving a bountiful harvest, you are simply throwing money and food out the window.  And none of us can afford that.

Nor can any of us afford to believe that natural or human-caused disasters, economic crises and other hard realities will never affect us.  None of us can rely entirely on stores and good fortune in a world where climate-linked disasters are on the rise and where instability of all kinds is the normal.

Without all three legs of the stool, you place yourself, your family, your community at risk.  With all three legs integrated, we have the beginnings of a model of collective food security on which we can build.  If there is a leg that is weak, wobbly or absent on your stool, time to make it strong and build it up.

Sharon

Newbie Food Storage on the Cheap

admin March 6th, 2011

Events being what they are, I’m getting a lot of email about the very basics of food storage, and I thought it was a good time to start revisiting this topic.  And lo and behold, the wonderful Kathy Harrison covered how not to waste your money  before I got there – and there’s lots more good advice at her site:

1. Know how you are going to store whatever you buy. Get the buckets before you get the 50 pound sack of wheat. Have the storage space before you buy the case lot.
2. Watch your unit price. The old adage of bigger being cheaper is no longer always true. Marketers are pulling out all the stops to get you to spend more money. Packages are smaller, pricing is all over the map, specials are not always the bargain they appear and coupons are a waste of money if they make you buy something you don’t want.
3. Don’t store what you can’t eat. Gluten intolerant people should not store wheat.
4. Don’t store what you won’t eat. I know you think that you’ll eat the canned string beans during the apocalypse but why not store something you actually like. I gave my canned green beans to the food pantry where someone who likes them can use them. I now only store those canned things I really like and use. I have lots of canned pineapple and mandarin oranges and very few canned vegetables except for corn and peas as my family will eat those in soups and chowders. I dry or home can or freeze the veges my family likes.
5. Make a price book. You don’t know a good buy unless you know the best price. It’s just too hard to keep track of the prices in all the places we can purchase food without a price book. I keep the prices for staples like peanut butter, concentrated juices and rice in my little book. When a true deal is out there I know it.
6. Eat the food. You may eat the 20-year-old can of salmon if you find yourself living the live from Earth Abides but otherwise, I don’t think so. Make salmon cakes a few times a month now. They’re easy and tasty and they’ll be familiar if you have to make them more often.

There’s a lot of information about food storage on this site (check the “categories” section) and of course, I wrote a book about food storage and food preservation (which are really two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways).

A few posts to look at if you are at the beginning stages of saying “hey, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to have some food around.”

1. Some real life stories that readers have sent me about how food storage changed their lives and helped them through some tough time.  This is a good reminder that zombies don’t have to be roaming the streets to make a food reserve useful.

2. Food Storage Baby Steps: Do these things before you shop!

3. The Menu Project: It really helps to have a plan for how you will integrate your food storage into your daily life.

4. A few of my favorite food storage recipes.

5. The $5 a week super-simple beginner method: This was a post by a friend of mine, A Nonny Mouse, and it helps people who are true, absolute beginners with no money just get a measure of security.

I do hope this helps someone – this is important stuff!  Maybe I’ll restart my Friday Food Storage Quickies as well!

Sharon

Even More Good Reasons to eat Locally

admin February 13th, 2011

Nearly all the southern regions that supply winter produce to the US have been hit by heavy freezes.  From the Digital Journal:

The cold weather experienced across much of the US in early February made its way deep into Mexico and early reports estimate 80-100 percent crop losses which are having an immediate impact on prices at US grocery stores with more volatility to come.

And it isn’t just Mexico – the freeze damage in Florida is also having an impact on produce prices – and will for some time to come.

This is just one more reason not to rely on far away places to feed you – and that means adapting a diet suitable to your own climate.  Do you miss cucumbers in February in upstate NY?  Sure.  Do you need them?  Not when you’ve got:

Apples, carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic, squash, sweet potatoes, sprouts, scallions, arugula, celery root, beets, potatoes as well as other fruits and vegetables preserved in various ways.   The world is full of reminders that while it is a good thing to be able to go outside your region when you need to, need and want aren’t the same.

Sharon

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