Archive for the 'food' Category

Getting the People in Your Home to Eat the Actual Food

Sharon September 6th, 2012

I think I get more requests for ideas for helping people who are on-board with the idea of sustainable eating get the rest of their families on-board than on any other food storage topic.  So let’s talk about that.  I actually wrote this post back in 2008, before our fostering adventures, so I’ve added some suggestions since then, based on my experience of getting traumatized kids who have lived on not enough food and all processed to eat good, real food.

In a perfect world, of course, our partners, roommates, children and other assorted members of our lives would say “Oh, I’m so thrilled you are growing a garden – now I can get rid of the honey-barbecue chips and the fast food, and start really appreciating rutabagas like I’ve always wanted to.”  In our perfect world, when Daddy unveils his laboriously created six-vegetable risotto with an enthusiastic “Voila!” the kids would say “Wow, Dad, is there really, truly bok choy in it?  And we can have seconds?  Yay!” instead of “What’s ‘wallah’?  It looks gross.  And ewww, what’s that green stuff?”

I would say the odds are good that most of us live in a somewhat imperfect world.  If we’ve been lucky enough to have started our kids on this stuff from birth, we may avoid the latter (mostly), but since most of our lives also involve some adults we didn’t get a hand in raising, and who we love despite their weird habits, we’re kinda stuck with them, and the painful reality that shifts in diet run up against people’s weird habits pretty hard.

The thing is, changing someone’s food habits is a big thing – we can do this for ourselves – all of a sudden we see the light and begin eating a new way – but making others do it?  That’s a challenge.  In many ways, we define ourselves by what and how we eat – so attacks on diets look like attacks on people, and often are fended off with the ferocity of warfare.  Nor does moralizing work very well – we all know the truth – the Western diet kills people, and the dying often cling to it with a passion that proves firmly that you can’t make most people change by simply telling them how bad their choices are.

As far as I can tell, with rational adults, and extremely rational teenagers there are a few ways of at least getting them onboard for the broader project of changing diets.

1. You enlist them in the name of self-improvement and being better people.  You can do this straight, or manipulatively. (And yes, I know in a perfect world, you’d never manipulate people at all, but I’ve never met a family in which there was no manipulation at all, if you include the sort of blatant, half humorous stuff.)   The straight way is simply to say “I think we all ought to be eating better – do you agree?  Here’s what I want us to do.”  This works in some families and with some people – and it doesn’t with others, even if we wish it would.  Don’t forget to mention the chance to be self-righteous to them that like that sort of thing the “I can’t believe those people who eat all that processed…”

If you do need/want to be sneaky,  it helps, I think if you start the discussion from the assumption that you both care very much about these things and want the same things.  That is, some people can be confused a little by simply starting from the “Of course we both care desperately that everyone have enough food in the future, so I know you will agree with me.”  Some people will assume that if you are assuming they care about this seemingly good thing that they must, and that gets you part of the way.  Or perhaps you could enlist their help against a larger obstacle ”Katie our two year old is so terribly picky, and I’m so terribly concerned that she be able to eat things…perhaps you can help me make it easier for her…” Or if you think that it will work (and if they are a person you’d say this sort of thing to) you can tell them it turns you on when they eat what you want them to eat.    Heck, you’ve got weirder kinks than a taste for seeing your girlfriend devour kale, right?

2. You use a different motivator than the one that moves you.  If you know the person you are thinking of is, say, cheap, you talk about how to save money, with an emphasis of doing the things you want to do anyway.  If the person is into cool gadgets, talk about the neat stuff you can buy to preserve food.  With small children, a great strategy is to convince them that you don’t really want to share your asparagus anyway because it is a wonderful grownup food that children don’t need, or to describe the food  in disgusting terms – you aren’t just offering them healthy food, you are offering them roadkill stew with sweet potatoes, and if they eat it, they can tell their friends that they ate week old raccoon.

3. You sneak the food into their diets gradually.  This is often the case when the motivated person is the primary cook, and has some control over what goes into food.  Suddenly, the noodles are whole wheat or brown rice flour.  Secretly, the meatballs are half tvp or ground zucchini. The yogurt is in the old containers, but it comes from home and has homemade strawberry jam mixed in.  You don’t talk about it, unless someone says something nice.  The word “fritter” shows up in your meal, and the fritters are suspiciously green.  The cookies get kinda browner and a little denser.  When asked about these things, you tell people they must be imagining things.

4. You are a total hardass.  This works only if you are the sole cook for someone without much power to get food elsewhere – young kids, teenagers too young to drive or too poor to buy food, spouses so accustomed to eating the partner’s cooking (or sufficiently well disciplined ;-) ) that they won’t dissent too much.  It starts out once a week – there’s this meal, and no snacks unless you eat some of it.  Then it goes up to two or three meals a week – dal and rice replaces burgers, no one buys snack cakes and juice boxes and carrot  juice is in the pitcher.  Don’t like it?  Tough patooties.  Guess who is holding the car keys?  The problem here is the danger of mutiny, or that someone else might actually learn to cook.

5. You compromise – a little of this, a little of that – and the truth is that while you have to eat more out of your storage, and you find some meals that everyone will like, you never quite get to the point where everyone is really eating this way all the time – there’s still some frozen stuff and take out in your life.  And that’s ok – just as long as you have a range of things people will do with the 75lbs of dried chickpeas that don’t involve sculpture.

Some practical ideas:

1. I’ve had great luck (and other people I know have) getting kids to eat raw cabbage dipped in ketchup, even if they won’t eat it cooked.  For that matter, a bottle of Heinz is a small price to pay to help kids adapt to eating veggies.

2. Root vegetables roasted in a pan are the basis for tons of meals – they can go inside enchiladas or wrap sandwiches, act as a starchy side dish (and are great at room temperature or cold),

3. Fritters.  You can dip them in anything.  Also dumplings.  No one has to know what’s inside/

4. Less sweet pumpkin or sweet potato pie can be breakfast, lunch and dinner (although maybe not in the same day).

5. For people who like strong flavors and mixed up foods, things like jambalaya, gumbo and casseroley things are your friend, because it is hard to tell exactly what’s in it – particularly if you chop the mustard greens finely.  If kids or family members hate onions or pepprs, try pureeing them for inclusion.

6. For people who like everything to be separate with nice clean lines, the potato is your friend.  Meat and potato people can get used to an ever-increasing amount of potato and a gradually decreasing amount of meat.  Sweet potatoes are almost a potato, right?

7. Vegetarian cookbooks are your friends – even if you aren’t veg.  They often have recipes that you’ll be able to put together with only pantry and garden.

8. Teenagers like power.  Get them cooking – and give them the power, within certain parameters, to choose some of the meals.

9. It really helps to let go on some things.  If you reassure your honey you aren’t trying to take away everything she loves, that you will still love him if he stops at the convenience store, your kids that candy is still allowed now and again, this will help the transition.  In fact, it helps if you instigate – let them have ice cream sundaes for dinner once a year, and you put it on the schedule!  Work with them, at the same time you are working “against” them.

10. Sometimes using a fat/salt/sugar laden technique is what is needed to get started with a new food – make rutabaga chips fried in oil with salt – and once they admit they like rutabagas, then you can work on mashing them.  Cheese sauce makes all things better.


The Fruit Olympiad

Sharon August 2nd, 2012

In honor of the real olympics, a paean from last year to our family’s favorite sport.  And can I just note that peach-blackberry-vanilla jam is a lovely, lovely thing?

Some parents are soccer parents. Some parents are baseball or gymnastics parents. Some drive constantly to swim, cheer, play volleyball or cricket. My kids do swim, play basketball in winter and pick-up baseball anytime, but our primary family sport is fruit picking.

Historically speaking, berrying is children’s work – one sent the kids out into the woods for the afternoon and if they are not eaten by bears (think _Blueberries for Sal_, _Farmer Boy_, and other classic treatments of the “meet the bear in the woods while berrying”) they come back with a pail of berries for canning.

We, of course, belong to a different era – while we have 19 acres of woods, they won’t keep us in berries by ourselves, and at 9, 7 and 5, the younger children are only now old enough to roam them independently.. Our household bushes bear abundantly, but for the most part fail to keep up with the voracious appetite of four small berry predators.

In addition to picking from our woods and the household berry patches, we go and visit various pick-your-owns. Our favorite, a few towns away in the valley, offers absolutely no amenities of agritourism (why we like it) and lovely views of the rock escarpment near us. It is a place for serious pickers, and the large Polish and Russian immigrant communities in the area make up a big portion of the clientele, along with the locals.

It is a sport – there’s timing (making sure you get there before the fields are picked over, but when enough berries are ripe to make it worth it), strategy (you little people get under those bushes – remember, most people pick standing up) and discipline (our favorite place makes ice cream from its own fruit, but the firm policy is “no work, no treat.” There is speed and endurance and all the thrills and chills of sport (although a dearth of dramatic pratfalls, unless Simon is involved).

Every berry and fruit provides its own skill set. Strawberries are a warm-up fruit – cultivated strawberries are almost too easy, and mostly about getting you going again after winter. They are big and rewarding,even a pre-schooler can fill a quart basket in a short time, and the main thing is just to remember to dress appropriately for red stains on your knees. Think of it as spring training.

From strawberries, we move to more challenging cherries, the sweet and the sour. Those on very dwarf trees are just a leisurely stroll in the shade, but most of our cherry trees are standards and involves acrobatic high climbing, ladders and at least one child hanging off of something they shouldn’t. They are also a race with the birds – who will get them, who will devour first the ripest berries at the peak of the trees?

Blueberries are next, and blueberries are mostly about endurance. It is July now, and hot – blueberry bushes are too short to provide shade. Blueberries are delicious, but tiny – it takes forever for an impatient child to fill a quart basket. Are we done yet? Blueberries teach discipline. I’ll admit, some years, since blueberries tend to fall at the same time as my son’s annual swim lessons, not too far from our favorite farm, I go alone and luxuriate in the peace and quiet.

Then come the bramble bushes, which are true sport – as Hagrid would put it admiringly in the _Harry Potter_ books (one of my sons pointed this out to me) “they can take care of themselves, can’t they?”). It is this very vitality and aggressiveness that makes them fun.

It is true one can find thornless cane fruits, but none of our local sites has them – so one must accustom oneself to being pricked and scratched in the scramble to fill baskets with blackberries and raspberries. Sneaking up on them is a good technique – you see a tempting cluster, and attempt to go over or under or slip around, but they see you coming and thrust out a spiked branch – or worse, with the blackberries, the perfectly ripe berries drop, as you touch them, out of their cluster and to the ground, protected by something like the thorny barrier that grew over Sleeping Beauty’s house.

The challenge of it only makes us enjoy it more – you would think that thorns and wasps would not happiness make, but they do. The children’s complaints are half-hearted and most of the time, they forget to make any in the joy of the chase, working together to fill pails. In an hour and a half on a picked over field, my boys picked 20 lbs.

After the cane fruit come the peaches. At our house, the peaches come late – at the end of August – and involve the most beloved of all rituals – going on on the roof to collect the ones that have grown at the top. We have two Reliance peach trees in a protected area above our covered porch, and the while the roof is normally forbidden to my children, on peach harvest day they are simply warned not to fall off, and everyone lays on their bellies, leaning over the side and capturing stray peaches grown too large for their britches.

Fall raspberries are easier and less aggressive than the summer ones, and while apple picking does involve some tree climbing, particularly in the old remnant orchard we are restoring, it is nothing compared to the cherries, peaches and blackberries – by autumn, fully trained, in the finest fruit-picking shape, you rest on your laurels and ripe apples and pears drop into your hands.

All of it goes back to the kitchen to be processed and devoured. During the season for each fruit, all of us eat as much of it as we want to – an unimaginable luxury. As many raspberries as you can eat – such a joy, and like bears we store up pleasure for the shortfall to come. The rest is dried or jammed, occasionally frozen or turned into liqueurs. All of us know there will be a long and apply winter before the first spikes of rhubarb and then the glorious first strawberries. That’s ok – we love apples and pears and quinces, the fruits of autumn, the ones that keep and make you happy all winter. A winter of apples and pears and occasional citrus is more delightful when a bowl of blackberry-peach sauce flows over your pancakes, when blueberry jam is spread lavishly on your morning toast, and when you can slip a hand into the dried strawberry jar and taste, for a moment, summer gone by, the sunshine and the sport of it built in to every bite.

What Can We Expect from Food Prices

Sharon July 19th, 2012

Depending on whose measure you are taking, somewhere between 55 and 62% of the US is in moderate-to-extreme drought.  The US corn crop is likely to be seriously affected as Stuart Staniford documents with his usual meticulousness. The big question – what does this mean for food prices and availability going into the coming year?  Spikes in corn prices are already occurring, with a range of likely impacts – some of which our obvious (more expensive Fritos and Beef) and some of which aren’t (more dairy farmers going out of business as feed prices exceed the price of milk).

The worst effects probably won’t be in the US – but will emerge as already high global food prices squeeze out the folks who most depend on grains – the ones too poor to burn them in their cars and eat them as meat, but who eat the grains to live.  Predicting the future is a delicate game, but we can expect to see the impact for some time to come, playing out as always in complex ways.

Higher food prices, along with continued economic instability in the US are likely to push a lot of us hard as well.  We, folks, are living in interesting times.

What does this look like from your view?


Where is Your Food Coming From? Bullseye Evaluation

Sharon March 15th, 2012

It has been a few years since I’ve done a really close examination of how much of our food we’re producing/getting locally/getting from elsewhere.  In that time, some things have changed at our place – some of our fruit trees have begun producing, we’ve gotten more and different livestock, we’ve built relationships with some new sources.  On the other hand, foster children have meant we are required to provide some purchased milk and other items we didn’t buy previously, and we also have been the beneficiaries of a lot of things given to us by our dumpster-diving buddy.

I think it is time for me to sit down and figure out what we’re eating and where it is coming from in a consistent way, and I’d like to invite others to do so too.   Many years ago, Aaron Newton and I imagined “The Bullseye Diet” as a revision of the then-popular “100 Mile Diet” to help people think about how to bring the local into their diets – you start with the 50 yard diet (from your back steps or your kitchen garden) and move out from there.  The goal is to get most of your food from the inner rings – and to rely on the outer as much as possible for luxury items, rather than things you really depend on.

Different people in different places will have very different abilities to do this – and that’s fine, this isn’t a competition.  What it is is a chance for us all to compare notes on how much food we can produce on our own properties and how much we can forage and buy from nearby – and where exactly it is coming from.  By pulling together regional information and how big our personal land bases are, we can get a sense of what, say, urbanites in Pheonix or suburban dwellers outside Sheboygan can grow, and what an emergent local food culture really looks like.

I’d like to invite you to join me, starting April 1, in keeping track of how much you are producing, and where the food you aren’t producing is coming from.  Over the course of a year, with monthly self-analysis, we’ll take a look at what we local eaters are actually eating, where we’re getting it, what we can change and what needs work.  We know that the local food movement has made enormous progress over the last few years, but how much in any given region is hard to quantify, and few regions have full local food evaluations.  This isn’t that – but it is a start at collecting experiences.

It shouldn’t be too onerous to track – most of us can quickly note where our meals are coming from – and again, this is not about competing. Instead, we need to think about what would happen if we couldn’t buy everything we wanted – and  tbe first steps in that are taking a good hard look at what we are really eating.  But not just a hard look – this is a chance to look with pride and joy at all we’ve accomplished both personally and as communities.  It is a chance to show off what we’re eating, and the delicious, local meals we’re producing.  To ask ourselves about substitutes for things we buy from far away and to share our collective wisdom at finding new resources and new ways to include more vibrant local food in our diets.

Anyone in?


What Will I Eat this Winter?

Sharon October 5th, 2011

Several readers wanted to know what my family will be eating, given the destruction of our garden and of local crops in the valleys.  I’ve delayed answering this question because I’ve been waiting to see some of what emerges in the month after Irene and Lee.  As you know, the Schoharie Valley, historically our primary produce source, was horribly flooded during the hurricanes, wiping out the crops of most of the farms I’ve relied on.  Other farmers had lesser damage, but it has been a tough year.

In some ways, the last month has been further disappointing – nearly non-stop rain has meant that even farms that didn’t lose crops to the tropical storms have lost some of their usual produce – for example, my usual source for fall raspberries in quantity lost everything.  Another source has had so much mold and mildew due to the rain that they aren’t picking either, so it looks like no raspberry jam this year.  Fortunately, we had a great year for blackberries and peaches, but raspberry was everyone’s favorite.

In other ways, there have been some heartening developments.  Several local farms have done the work of sourcing fairly local produce from farms in the region.  While the prices are up (they have to buy it), I can get bulk peppers, sweet potatoes and onions.  Some of the farms did have some crops in for the year before Irene and Lee, so while they lost all their field crops, they do have carrots, potatoes and garlic in some quantity – so one answer is more of what they do have.  Another is that in a minor crisis (and this is not minor here, but it isn’t a region-wide food failure without the capacity to transport food around either), I can rely on my local farms to source food for the customers from other farms in the larger region.  So I can add to my pantry most fall staples.

There will be some major gaps in my pantry this year – very few tomato products, and no salsa at all (Next year I’ll remember to mix it up more – I had decided I’d do all the whole tomatoes and sauce first and then the salsa when the hot peppers were riper, but that wasn’t such a terrific plan,  Definitely one of those live and learn things.

Despite being under 3 feet of water, the one really flood proof warm weather crop I did have were the tomatillos – astonishingly (given that they are more adapted to heat and drought), they’ve continued to grow unabated, where pretty much everything else but the greens drowned, rotted, succumbed to fungal disease, burned down or fell into the swamp (there is something Monty Pythonish about the ways that plants succumbed).  So along with some greens, we’ll have a lot of salsa verde and carmelized tomatillo jam.  This will definitely take up a larger role in our diets this year.

Turnips mostly survived, so we’ll eat more of those as well.  We had a good quince year, our best ever, and many local farms do have apples, so apple-quince sauce and quince jam and paste will also take center stage instead of standing towards the back.

We’ve fortunately got hay put aside, but no corn for our livestock or for us. I have some pop and grinding corn left over, and the corn stalks have fed goats and rabbits so it isn’t a total loss, but still, we’ll be buying more feed this winter than I like.

There are two implicit questions here – what will I eat this winter, and what would I eat in a disaster that meant we couldn’t bring in what we had.  The answer to both is “more of what there is” – but it would be vastly harder to adapt to in the case of an inability to bring in crops from further away.  We keep enough stored food to be able to eat all winter, but we’d grieve the lack of many of our usual root cellared staples that make that diet more appealing, and to the preserved foods that give brightness, spice and pleasure.  Still, we would eat.

To me, this emphasizes the central importance of both food production and food storage – any of us may see crop or even whole garden/farm failures in any given year, and none of us can be 100% sure that we will be able to replace what we have lost.  Food storage gives us leeway, and the option of keeping everyone fed.  Food preservation allows us to take what is abundant (and something is always abundant in even the worst years) and use it to supplement and rebuild food stores, in case not everything is abundant.\

The other thing I have learned to this is to assume less – I did not rush when the cucumber became available because ordinarily, I have another month of pickling.  I could have canned more tomatoes, put up more of the rhubarb, harvested some of the corn before the storm and dried it indoors.  Hindsight, of course, is always clear – but it will remind me next year, and as I fill my root cellar not to take for granted the idea that next month’s gleanings will be there.

I think my family has never had such an acute lesson on the importance of food storage, of keeping up with the preservation and making good use of all we have, and of appreciation of what is ordinarily available.  We are lucky – we can replace some of what is lost.  People in my region benefit both from the networks of farms that allow us to reach out a bit further from our local circle and also from the fact that we don’t, as yet, HAVE to rely on local food.  It gives us time to strengthen and build for a day when we may.


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