Archive for July, 2008

Diving In and Getting Going

Sharon July 31st, 2008

Wow - is the class over already?  I’ve now done two months of intense writing on food storage - which is great, it feels like 75% of my next book is already written.  And of course, I can think of a whole bunch of things I left out - I didn’t tell people how to make cheese!  What about sourdough and yeasts?  What about community scale food storage?  Ack!  Still, there comes a point at which I have to admit that there are only 24 hours in my day and that I’m getting a little control freaky if I personally feel I’m the only person on the planet who can help people get fed.  Maybe time for a short break and a few drinks before the next class ;-) .

I can’t think of any better way to end this class than with my last post from last time “Bunt to Whee: The Battle Cry of the Food Storers” - and a reminder that in the five months since the last time I ran this class, the reasons for getting started on these things have only increased.  Food prices haven’t come down.  The oil in agriculture is still there.  The climate is still getting warmer.  And we’re getting poorer by the minute.  The truth is that we need a reserve, some practice, and people in our communities with these skills.

 So all I can say is - I wish I’d written on everything and answered every question, including all of my own,  but it is far more important that there are so many of you out there doing this stuff!  All of you trying, blogging, talking to people, teaching others, helping out your neighbors, testing in your kitchen - that means my little stuff gets bigger all by itself, through the magic of community - yours here and then yours with the peopel you spread it out to.  I’m really lucky, and so is the world to have y’all.

So thank you all for all the comments, and the experiments, and all the blogs, the Independence Days Updates, the failures and successes, the accounts and recommendations.  Thanks for all the people you show something or explain to, all the kids who get to see their Dads and Moms taking food storage seriously, all the times you have and will offer to give a neighbor a hand or a reminder that this is cheaper in bulk. 

This isn’t just about my personal senes of gratitude of course, but it is vast, and I feel very fortunate that I have people to correct me, to point out my errors, to offer new ideas and to take the stuff I did (and the stuff other people did that I stole), and spread them around and play with them.  The hell with control freaks - there’s no way I could do that much myself.

Heck, there aren’t that many of us, but there are more and more, and I’m starting to hope just a little that this kind of networking might actually spread out to where it is needed, when it is.  It is already bigger and more powerful than I’d ever dreamed.

 Thank you all, and Bunt to the Whee!


Season Extension - Getting More Green From Your Garden

Sharon July 31st, 2008

My favorite way to eat most foods is fresh, just picked.  That means my absolute favorite way to store food is to extend my garden’s season so I don’t have to do any major preservation work.  And this is so easy - fall gardening is fun, no pests, and the food tastes better after a frost or two generally - the difference is huge.  Kale eaten after a hard freeze is tender, with a deep sweetness.  Kale before a freeze ain’t bad.  Carrots that have undergone some cold weather are sugary, cabbage sweet and crisp.  This is a good thing.

 Even in chilly upstate NY, without a greenhouse or a hoophouse (I’m hoping to have the latter soonish), I can keep stuff going through December and into January.  The last few years, I’ve managed to overwinter spinach, kale and leeks occasionally completely unprotected - throw a foot or two of leaves on things, and no problem. 

The book to get on this subject is Eliot Coleman’s _Four Season Harvest_ and I’m going to really recommend you use it.  Obviously, the degree to which you can do this or need to do this will depend on where you live - in the coldest places, you can’t leave anything out at all. In warm ones, season-extension might be throwing a blanket over the watermelon during the occasional frost.  But for my area, I’ll give you a sense of how it works.

 There are two kinds of season extension, to my mind.  The first is the protection of crops so that you can harvest over the winter, the second is the planting of crops that will grow or regrow very early in the spring, to tide you over when nothing else is growing.  Both are good. 

For the former, generally most of the growth has to be done here by mid-September - which means that I’m planting a lot of the fall greens and vegetables right now.  Peas are started in peat pots inside, roots are planted or transplanted to be harvested in October or later.  Quick growing greens like mizuna, arugula and spinach can be planted as late as early September. 

Then the question is how much protection do they need, and do I want to give them?  I’m lazy - but you can do all sorts of things - cold frames are great - you can build them or make them out of straw bales and old windows.  Floating row covers will offer some protection, as will mulch.  Even blankets thrown on at night and taken off in the morning will extend your season a week or two in many cases.  Don’t forget to bring in containers and keep them growing on a windowsill - that’s season extension too!

 The amount of effort you put in, and your investment will depend on what you are trying to accomplish - to keep a full crop of vegetables in place all winter will probably involve at a minimum a hoophouse and floating row covers, and maybe supplemental heat in a cold spot.  To extend your season an extra month or so might be easily done with some plastic and some leaves.  Again, there’s a lot of information out there, more than  I can offer here.

 The second kind of storage is related - the kind you eat early in the spring - for example, parsnips are often used this way, kept in the ground until the thaw begins and dug and enjoyed then at their sweetest.   Salsify and scorzonera work this way too.   Kale, leeks, collards, roots, winter lettuces, mache and other very cold hardy things can also be overwintered with mulch - they will die back during the winter, but regrow vigorously long before you can get down into the soil.

 The thing is, while you can learn a lot from Coleman and others, if you want fresh foods year round (other than sprouts) it will take practice - this is one of those things where advice can, I think only go so far - you will need to do a lot of experimentation - but think about how glorious it is to be able to eat things fresh, when nothing else fresh is about.


Getting the Actual People In Your House To Eat the Actual Food

Sharon July 31st, 2008

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. 

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…  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, 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 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 wheatgrass 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 cabbage dipped in ketchup, even if they won’t eat it cooked.

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.

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.

 6. For people who like everything to be seperate 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.

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. 


Root Cellaring and In-Garden Storage

Sharon July 31st, 2008

This is actually a subject I’ve written on several times before, but I do want to both remind people of its possibilities, and talk about a related method of storage. 

The basics of root cellaring involve taking a hard shelled or very dense fruit or vegetable with a good storage life naturally, and keeping it very cool - the closer you can get to just above freezing the better.  More realistically, most root cellars will vary by 10 or 15 degrees over the course of the year.  For example, our “root cellar” is actually an unheated porch that doesn’t freeze. By November it is usually cool enough to keep most root cellared vegetables - we store them in bins, bags and boxes.

It matters a lot what varieties you choose for storage - I’ve written more about this here:

I’ve also written about the way root crops may be more central to our diets here:

and here:

But besides formal root cellars (which can be any part of your house that can be kept cool and not too dry - 50-60 degrees F for squash and pumpkins, and onions will often tolerate this for a while although it isn’t ideal - and 40ish F for everything else), there is also in-garden storage.  This is one of those strange hybrid things that could be called “season extension” or “Root Cellaring” but I’m electing to put it with root cellaring.

Basically, in cold climates (those in very warm places may not be able to do this at all, but they should be able to keep plants growing over the winter, or dry, can or otherwise preserve these crops), many crops can be pulled up and left in trenches or holes in the ground, and then covered with a thick (several feet in my climate) layer of hay, straw or leaves.  Straw bales laid over the trenches are perfect.  You may get mice or other critters occasionally, but often things survive fairly well.  

Or as several readers suggested, you can dig a hole and bury some object - a wood or metal barrel, an old cooler, an old fridge or freezer in the ground, and then cover the top with straw or leaves or hay to insulate it.  Voila - instant root cellar!

The only problem, of course is in places like mine where you often get deep, heavy, extended snow cover, you may not really want to dig three feet of snow off the root cellar.  But that is the price of simplicity ;-) .  My own observation is that kids like to help  with this and that there’s a buried treasure quality - but make sure you can take a good bit at a time, since having to dig out every single time you need a carrot would suck.



Ready, Aim….

Sharon July 30th, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich has a wonderful essay on the way we’re turning on ourselves in response to the financial crisis - and how we should be turning our anger outwards.  She’s right - and it isn’t just suicide.  Depression, domestic violence, child abuse - all of these are on the rise, and in large part due to the fact that people are poorer, scared and frustrated.  Ehrenreich writes of the move to respond to the financial bad news by destroying yourself that we’re aiming in the wrong direction:

“Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition — like an ever-rising number of Americans — you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn’t God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans — often masked as financial institutions — did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins’s article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it’s so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?”

And may I hear an amen?  I’m with Ehrenreich here - we’ve all been taught to be ashamed of poverty, that we’re in charge of our own destiny, and thus, if we are poor, we’ve failed.  This, of course is a lie - but a terribly potent one, one with the power to hurt us very badly - as long as we let it.

It is time and past time to stop buying that lie, to get angry and turn our anger towards the places we can make a difference.  For example, right now, our future is being stolen from us as the Fed and other government agencies pour billions of dollars - billions that might have been spent on food aid, hunger relief, reinsulation of millions of homes, renewable energy applications for schools and hospitals - into Wall Street, into an economy that is collapsing anyway.  Our money, and our future is being treated as so much garbage.  And we are permitting it.

In his book _The People’s History of the Twentieth Century_, Howard Zinn speculates that in fact, the New Deal wasn’t so much a response to the desperation of the American people during the Depression, but a response to the sheer success of collective action by ordinary people.  Labor Unions and organized resistance to foreclosures and evictions became so powerful, so dangerous to institutional powers, that government response was in part motivated by the recognition that their power was *GOING TO GO AWAY PERMANENTLY* because people realized - oh wait, we don’t have to let them take our homes away, or treat us like slaves.  That is, the Depression brought great suffering - but it also brought the recognition that the only solution to that suffering lay in the hands of ordinary people.  This is no less true now than then, although it is sometimes hard to see or remember.

Or think, for example, about the tremendous energies used by Southern slave owners to prevent slave rebellions.  The prohibitions against reading and writing, the hideous punishments of failed ones, all of this was used to convince slaves that they could not win - even though there’s an excellent chance they could have, had enough rebelled.  Deep at the heart of slavery and every kind of repression is the knowledge that if enough people care enough, are angry enough, are willing enough to sacrifice for something better, all the slave owners and entrenched powers are doomed.  All it takes is enough “no”s.

On the same day I read Ehrenreich’s article, I got an email from a man who said:

 ”I’m getting ready for climate change and peak oil. I’m working with my community.  I’m preparing personally. I know I’m doing the right thing by reading and learning and teaching others.  But I can’t shake this feeling of sadness.  When my daughter was born, 6 years ago, I was so excited, so filled with hopes and dreams for her.  Now, as I learn more about the world, I feel like all my dreams have died, and my hopes are being reduced to ‘I hope my daughter gets to live in a world that isn’t too brutal and inhumane’ or ‘I hope even though there might not be enough resources to go around that she gets some.’  I don’t like the dreamless person I’m becoming.  How do I find something to hope for, to dream of, that isn’t the bare minimum of survival?”

It was an email I didn’t quite know how to answer when I first got it, and the gentleman kindly gave me permission to think about it and print an answer here.  But now, I think I do have a kind of an answer. 

One of the criticisms levelled at my end of (the relocalizers, permaculturists, sustainability crew) is that we’re unrealistic, utopian, that we don’t fully grasp how hard it will be to simply keep alive, and now we’re shooting at making things better?!?  And there’s almost certainly some truth to that criticism - as there is to all potent critiques.  And lord knows, as a recent Onion Headline (“Small, Dedicated Group of Concerned Citizens Fails to Change World”) points up, it is easy to get a little too fuzzy and cute about empowerment and imagine that simply by reducing the scale of some things while fundraising and putting up the right bumperstickers that we’ll magically make all the entrenched powers go away.

But while they are pretty good at ignoring or subverting small groups of concerned citizens, the old adage about coyotes (that they are more scared of you than you are of them) rather applies to politicians, corporations and other entrenched powers when faced with big groups of pissed off people.  Want proof?  Look at history - at the number of times angry groups of people have changed societies quite rapidly and radically.  It happens all the time.  It isn’t happening yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. 

So as I cast about for answers to what my correspondent can dream for his children, and I for mine,  I found this - a dream of anger, used wisely.  A world in which today’s parents,  and all today’s grownups have the courage to get angry, and use the power they have.  In which they have the ability to see what is possible, and to take in a host of ways as much power as they can for ordinary people.  As institutions and politicians and corporations are more and more proved utterly unequal to the task of meeting our needs, we can open our eyes and see that we can meet them - or we can withdraw our support and tolerance from those institutions until serve us, rather than forcing us to serve them.

 Then I can dream of two things for my boys, and for his daughter.  First, that they will grow up uncowed by those powers - aware that they only seem distant and immovable.  And also that they will know that their anger and passion are powerful enough to take an imperfect, warmer, depleted world, and find a kind of sufficiency within it - with enough left over for dreams for the next generation.


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