Food Preservation and Democracy

Sharon May 4th, 2007

The rhubarb is up. And it has me thinking about democracy, justice and what to have for dinner. We’ve talked here about how the opposite of poverty is self-sufficiency, and why it is that self-sufficiency is our best bet going into the future. But what does that actually look like? How do you live? What do you do? What do you eat? What is it like to live that way? And what, perhaps most importantly, would change about our culture if we ate that way?

I was lucky enough to know one of the people on the earth who knew the most about this, Carla Emery, author of _The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book_. Before her death in 2005, Carla was travelling the nation trying to help people get ready for a life with much less energy. She’d done almost everything in her book (and it is a big book) at least once, and new more than anyone I’ve ever met. Here’s what she says about how she makes sure her family is fed,

“All spring I try and plant something every day - from late February,
when the early peas and spinach and garlic can go in, on up to mid-
summer, when the main potato crop and the late beans and lettuce
go in. Then I switch over and make it my rule to try and get
something put away for the winter every single day. That lasts
until the pumpkins and sunflowers and late squash and green
tomatoes are in. Then comes the struggle to get the most out of
the stored food - all winter long. It has to be checked regularly,
and you’ll need to add to that day’s menu anything that’s on the
verge of spoiling, wilting or otherwise soon becoming useless.
Or preserve it a new way. If a squash gets a soft spot, I can gut
it out and cook, mash, can or freeze the rest for a supper vegetable
or pie, or add it to the bread dough.

You have to ration. You have all the good food you can eat right
at arm’s reach and no money to pay…until you run out…

People have to choose what they’re going to struggle for. Life is
always a struggle, whether or not you’re struggling for anything
worthwhile, so it might as well be for something worthwhile.
Independence days are worth struggling for. They’re good for me,
good for the country and good for growing children.”
(Emery, 493-494)

Her “Independence Days” were the ones in which her family ate from their own land and gardens. She was right in this - independence is worth striving for. Not only is it worth striving for because it is good for us, our nation and our families, but also because someday we may depend on these skills and knowledge - and right now we might have a better country if we did this.

I’m no Carla Emery, unfortunately, although I work at being as much like her as I can. Every spring, I sit down and inventory our food stores, particularly the things I put up the previous year. At the back of my mind is this question: “If we had to live on what I could produce, could we?” And the answer is generally, “not as well as we’d like.”

Some years that was because of the CSA - in years when we’ve been short on a crop, all of it, or the best of it goes to our customers. We eat the tomatoes with the bird pecks, or the two eggplants left over. Sometimes the problem is that I didn’t put up enough, or harvest things at the right time, and sometimes there’s something else. One year we lost most of our potatoes, all our strawberrries and a heck of a lot of other things to heavy flooding (the first two years we lived here were drought, so we didn’t discover until year three that one of our large garden patches lays wet), another year Eric accidentally left the door to the storage area open on a bitterly cold night - poof, four months worth of potatoes, onions and apples were gone. I think this last year the problem was that I forgot that four growing boys keep growing.

All of which is just a way of saying that after years of practice, I still don’t have the feeding ourselves down to a perfect science. I’m still embarassed about the year I made blueberry jam and didn’t check the seals - every jar was moldy when we opened them. I’m not perfect and I have made every mistake you can possibly imagine. The good thing about all those mistakes is that eventually, you get to the point where it isn’t as hard. We still buy some of our grains and beans, and are still grateful that if the potato harvest doesn’t measure up, we can go to the local farmer’s market and supplement our needs, and we enjoy bananas and citrus as much as the next person, along with spices and seasonings from far away. But we also keep trying to feed ourselves, and we get better at it every year. We’re now to the point where most years, we probably could surivive, we just wouldn’t be eating our preferred diet.

But here’s the thing - even if we never achieve perfection - if we never manage to raise every single thing we want to eat, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in putting by and getting better at it. Because even right now, every bite of food we don’t purchase is a gift - it represents money we don’t have to spend on groceries and can devote to other things. Every bite closer we get to feeding ourselves means we eat better.

Americans tend to believe that hunger could never come their way. They forget that just two generations ago, during the depression, as many as 25% of urban school children were malnourished, and people stood in bread lines. They forget that the experience of privelege we’ve known in these wealthy nations is very odd - a historical anomaly. That pretty much all human beings starting with our grandparents and going back knew periods of food insecurity - and that the majority of people in the world know hunger at some point in their lives. Should we bet the farm on the notion that this magical immunity to the plague of hunger will go on forever?

Growing your own food is only one part of the project - the next is preserving it, and making sure you have enough to eat, and things you like. Most places in the world have a period where you can’t grow much food, either because it is too hot or too dry, too cold or too wet. So we have to put up food for those times. And then there’s the job of resource management - if I left things up to my kids, I’d have strawberry jam every single day, until there wasn’t any more, and then they’d complain until the next year’s strawberry harvest. Someone has to be the one to say, “ok, apricot this time - let’s save some of that strawberry for early spring when we’ll all want something sweet.” Someone has to look at the apples and the pears and take the ones that are getting soft off and make them into sauce or dried apples before they rot and spoil, literally, the whole barrel.

The thing is, being involved with your food means being really seriously involved with your food. It means changing the way we’ve come to think about the world back to the way that we once did - revisiting a life of seasonality, with a time to plant, a time to sow, a time to harvest and a time to rest. It isn’t just a song, or a Bible verse, it becomes a way of life. And that’s ok, because that link to nature may be the thing that we’ve been missing in our lives. There’s growing evidence that people who work in the dirt, live with the seasons and connect to nature are happier and healthier than those who in more artificial circumstances.

So like all springs, my job now is to figure out how many cucumbers I need to plant next year, so that this time, the pickles (devoured by my three pickle-fiend sons) make it all the way until July, when I can make more. And how many potatoes to grow - and can I grow more of the cranberry colored ones that everyone liked do much? And I want to grow more of my own animal feed this year - the cost of corn is rising, and I’d like to stop buying feed altogether. How much room in my garden do the chickens need? How about the rabbits? Which of those weeds can I dry for hay? What I can I grow for them?

Preserving food is
every day work - it begins now, with the first rhubarb that will be dried or canned or made into sauce (and a reminder that I still have a bit left of last year’s to eat). Next come the strawberries (I don’t bother to preserve asparagus - doesn’t taste as good as fresh), and nettles (very nutritious dried in tea), and then the cycle begins in earnest. It really doesn’t take much time, once you get into a routine, and is well worth it. There are alwasys some busy days in the summer, but it isn’t too hard to put berries in the dehydrator after work or mix up pickle brine while making dinner.

Even if you don’t grow your own, preserving what is seasonal and fresh can provide you with a great deal of economic and food security - if you go to the farmer’s market at the end of the day, you may be able to get bushels of produce for almost nothing. Then comes the work of dehydration, or canning, or pickling. But the work is worth it - both because it enables you to eat a local diet and frees you from dangers in the food supply, but also because it means you don’t depend on corporations or others to provision you.

And that last point may be the most important. Food preservation, and food production are keys to democracy. We accept that a politician who is dependent on the money special interests provides cannot be wholly independent in their thought, and know that no matter how much personal integrity they may have, their intentions are fundamentally corrupted by being beholden to others.

Well the same is equally true of individuals - as long as we depend on large corporations to meet our basic needs, we’ll never be able to judge them fairly or recreate our society. That is, we cannot simultaneously call for an end to multinational monoliths and also pay them to feed us. As long as we admit we are dependent on corporations, any attempt at reform or culture change will fail, because we ourselves are corrupted by that dependence. We cannot deplore McDonalds, and then complain because poor people cannot buy their food from the equally troubling industrial organic producers who sell through whole foods. We need to recognize that our food dependence affects not just what we eat, but the fundamentals of our democracy and our political power.

We should not owe our lives to entities we deplore. And the only possible escape from that bind is to declare food independence - to meet as many of our basic needs as possible ourselves, and through small, sustainable farms with which we have real and direct relationships. And that means not just growing food, but ensuring a stable food supply, reasonable reserves and a dinner that depends on no one. Worth struggling for indeed!

I’d best get cracking!


8 Responses to “Food Preservation and Democracy”

  1. PeakEngineer says:

    Great post, Sharon! We can’t declare ourselves free yet still remain dependent on others to provide our freedom.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yet another excellent post that focuses on things that are important. Thank you, Sharon.

  3. Geoff Trowbridge says:

    Hey Sharon- I’m a very big fan of many of your essays, and have found a number of them quite inspirational. If there’s a female reincarnation (even though he’s still alive) of Wendell Berry, you just might be it!
    But, and this may seem like just a semantics thing, I think your concept of ‘Independence Day’ should be changed to ‘Interdependence Day’. There is an element, and I’m sure you’ve run into this even more than I have, in the Peak Oil community, that seems to think that we should all move to our cabin in the hills, set up our Permaculture garden, and stay away from all other people, who of course will turn into blood-thirsty zombies the second Oil prices get really high. As you’ve noted, these people are almost always men.
    People talk an awful lot about Energy independence or ‘self-sufficiency’, but I think those terms are mistaken. NOBODY is ever really self-sufficient, not should they be. People depend on each other, we all need one another, not just for our physical but for our spiritual survival. Me and my family are growing an increasing amount of our food, and have the land to do it in. But honestly the idea of depending JUST on ourselves, and spend most of our waking hours toiling to be completely ‘self-sufficient’, sounds pretty miserable. I think a lot of the attitudes and philosophies all too common in our current mainstream culture, attitudes of ‘go it alone’ and ‘the lone cowboy’, are not really that far off from the ‘Survivalist’, ‘independent’ streak of responses to Peak Oil. So I think that the idea of ‘Interdependence’ is a more appropiate and positive idea. The idea of an economy where everybody contributes their own little part- Bob grows paw-paw trees, Janet makes soap, Sharon grows vegetables, Lucy knits clothing out of sheep’s wool, Chris raises the sheep for that wool, etc.- sounds pretty wonderful. I think an economy based on Reciprocity, rather than ‘self-sufficency’, is really the message we should be sending. I’ve also heard this referred to as ‘The Gift Economy’. I think no matter how skilled and profient you are at growing and storing and preserving your food (all VERY necessary and noble tasks), if you don’t have good neighborly relationships, and you don’t have a community to work with, you are truly in an impoverished state, even if your larder is currently packed with tomatoes and squashes and whatnot.

  4. jewishfarmer says:

    Geoff - I’m very flattered by your kind words. Comparing me to Wendell Berry is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

    I do agree with you that the “head for the hills” mentality is the wrong one, and that we need interdependence at least as much as independance. I agree with just about everything you say (and am pleased to see a reference to the gift economy).

    I guess the only thing I’d say is this - I think there’s a certain degree of minimal self-sufficiency that maybe we should strive for within a reciprocal economy. Because, after all, the notion of economic specialization is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. So even though I don’t think that’s what you mean, I’m a little wary of any model that gets us back to doing just the one thing we do best for 8 hours a day again.

    To me, producing and preserving at least part of your diet seems like a minimal expectation for every reasonably able bodied person. I’m all for one person growing paw paws and the other growing kale and trading, but I think it is important that if the gift, barter or public economy breaks down that you can meet your most basic needs for food and shelter on some level.

    Plus, I think there are some things that it is just salutary to do - I think everyone, even urbanites with windowboxes, should touch dirt and get dinner from it once in a while. I do tend to think the world would be a better place if kings and presidents had to clean their own toilets and carry their own manures out to compost.

    Or maybe it is just the question of being able to do these things - I want to be able to make myself a sweater, even if someone else does it much better, because if they go away, or I don’t have anything to barter, then I’ll still have a sweater.

    But none of that should take away from the emphasis that your rightly place on community and reciprocity. It is an interesting question - how do we balance specialization and generalization.

    My own answer, for me alone, is that I bored easily ;-) , and so I like doing a lot of different things. I find learning to do all this stuff fun. But that said, I don’t do it all, and I am grateful that there are other people out there to do things for us.

    The one other point I would note is that how much drudgery self-sufficiency is to a large degree depends on what your standard of living is. The !Kung people were able to meet all of their needs with 3-4 hours of daily labor. The Ladakhis worked intensively 4 months a year and celebrated all winter long. 11th century British serfs had more days off than on, when you added up all the saints days and the sabbaths.

    I often note to myself that self-sufficiency would be a lot easier if I didn’t insist on having so much stuff, eating so much stuff, keeping so clean, etc…

    Again, none of that is to say you aren’t right. But I do think maybe we need to be careful about how much generalization and specialization we advocate.


  5. frogmaureen says:

    Thanks, Sharon, for this wonderful blog piece. My friend in NH sent it to me here in NC, and I’ll link to it for my blog. Despite corporate pressures to group-think, I think we’re seeing a mass movement toward better health and local sustainability. Not sure we can pull it off in time, but growing food locally and sustainably is the most politically-active thing I can think to do!

  6. anna in canada says:

    All I can say is “Amen.”

    And I’m still looking into urban chickens and beekeeping! If you can keep us posted about anything you find out re: how much land it takes to feed a chicken (or a bunny, or a bee!) I’m sure there’s more than me who would be grateful for it . . .

  7. Geoff Trowbridge says:

    You’re right, Sharon, there definitely does need to be both A) a minimal degree of self-sufficiency and ability for skillsthat were just about 100% commonplace a century ago and are now dwindling to disturbingly low numbers and B) a VAST reduction in consumption. For some people, REALLY REALLY FRIGGIN VAST, for others, just vast.
    I keep on hearing about this book “Stone Age Economics” and haven’t yet found the time to read it, but it seems like it might be really relevant enough to finally check out. I’ve heard some of those statistics about various tribal peoples before, and I think they are quite telling; they certainly reverse our concept of them as ‘primitive’ people. I’ve said for a while now that my Four basic requirements in life, in order to satisfy myself, would be 1. Food 2. Clothing 3. Shelter and 4. Community. I think this would be a pretty fair list for all of us, if we could really manage to achieve it. Once we’ve secured a dependable supply of food, clothing, and a steady shelter, we really should stop on the material needs at that point- and ask, WAIT! What’s missing here? Ah, the most important ingredient, Community! Other people. Neighbors. People who love us and whom we can love. With a few adendums here and there, perhaps the Beatles were right all along- Love IS all we need.
    Note: Have you ever had a chance to see a PBS series, made in the early 1990s, called “Millenium: Tribal Wisdom for the Modern World”, either the series itself or its companion book? I haven’t seen the series yet, but I have the book, and besides having an unbelievable amount of gorgeous photos and images from all around the world, it has a lot of text and descriptions of what life has been and is like for indeginious peoples; their culture, their spirituality, their way of looking at the world. It really is quite remarkable a lot of the time. You look at the high level of stability and true happiness they seem to have been able to achieve, and you think “Damn! Why haven’t we gotten that down yet, with all our high-falutin technology?” I’m not a complete luddite, and indeed I am quite conflicted about the appropiate use of technology, but our energy return of happiness on the energy investment of technology is definitely pretty low.

  8. Christina says:

    Great post! Here we are struggling, day by day, to grow more of our own food and putting it up for winter (we live in Sweden - short growing season!). Not there yet, but it’s a wonderful feeling of freedom to go down to the food cellar and get something for dinner instead of driving to the store.

    I agree with Geoff about the importance of reciprocity and a “gift economy” - it’s really important!! I don’t think we will be able to grow ALL our food - but today we had lamb sausage for dinner - made from lamb, raised by a friend of ours! And last year when we had a lot of parsnips we could give some to a parsnip-loving neighbour whose crop failed and who had gifted us with tomato seedlings earlier. I like that sort of exchange and I think it will be even more important as energy prices get higher and food more expensive.

    Christina (in Sweden)
    btw I have linked to your blog from my own

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