Archive for January, 2009


Sharon January 22nd, 2009

As I wrote in my last piece, the key to eating a diet based on staple foods is having some really wonderfully intense flavors to accent and transform an entire meal.  The miracle of condiments is their transformative power, the ability to bring a sandwich together, the ability to make dal and rice into something spectacular. 

And you can make your own - the homemade recipes for our most familiar accents are usually a revelation - wow, ketchup can taste like *that* (actually, despite the utter ubiquity of the Heinz version, ketchups have a long and complex and fascinating history, going back to the original “kecaps” in malay cooking and through some fascinating permutation in American history where mushroom and apple ketchups were common).  And then there are the less familiar ones - the ones that make you wonder how you lived without harissa, say.

Here are a few recipes to get you started - more on this, and on homemade spice blends soon.

Carrot-ginger chutney:

Mushroom ketchup:

A whole bunch of ketchups:

My favorite tomato ketchup:

Making mustard (check out the beer-thyme one!):

Salsa Verde Cruda:,1649,155161-241200,00.html

Really excellent hot sauce recipes:

 Homemade Harissa:

Harissa pickles:

 Ok, this is just the beginning of my condiment fetish posts, but I’ll stop here for tonight!  And please, please post your recipes for sauces, chutneys, salsas, hot sauces, ketchups, marinades…anything that makes things good!


Foodie Food Storage

Sharon January 22nd, 2009

One of the questions that comes up a lot is how people who are accustomed to eating mostly high quality, fresh foods adapt to a diet of stored and preserved foods.  People are concerned that this means an inevitable shift towards canned, processed and lower quality food than a fresh diet would allow for. 

My own opinion is that this is actually a false dichotomy - and not a trade off I’d personally ever accept.  The problem, IMHO, is not the issue of fresh foods vs. processed, but of making a real dietary shift that actually means that you are eating the best of your seasonal, preserved and fresh foods, rather than trying to reproduce your old diet.  “Foodie” food storage - food storage for people who love to eat and to eat delicious, high quality meals -  begins from the recognition that it is truly a way of eating, and one that changes with time and season.

Consider a summer meal - grilled chicken skewered with rosemary, sweet roasted corn with butter, new potatoes with parsley and lemon and lightly steamed green beans dressed with garlic vinagrette.  Now imagine, if you can do so without becoming ill, the industrial food storage parody of that meal.  Skewered canned chicken cubes, sprinkled with dry rosemary.  Aged potatoes steamed and sprinkled with dry parsley.  Canned green beans with garlic powder and cream style corn.  I suspect all of us have had something like this in a hospital or cafeteria somewhere.  This, of course, is the nightmare of all foodies ;-) .

But the question must arise - why on earth would you try to duplicate a meal that is fundamentally rooted in place and time - in the garden summer?  The same is true about foodie pantry eating - it begins, as all good artistries do, from its limits.  Like a sonnet, it is shaped in part by what you cannot do - but the limits can be freeing as well as restrictive, opening new kinds of art that aren’t possible when everything is open. 

The weak links in food storage are meat, milk and eggs.  Most of the non-fossil powered methods of long term storage aren’t something you want to work with every day - salting, smoking and sausaging result in food products that are extremely tasty, but not really healthy for everyday inclusion in your diet.  Powdered eggs and milk taste little like the alternatives. 

But then again, it is worth remembering that the peasant cuisines that we base much of our best food upon never contained meat, milk and eggs in the quantities we have them now, never ate them all year round.  That is, no one ever ate osso buco nightly, or cassoulet daily.  And the cassoulet was born as a way to extend small amounts of meat with beans and other foods.  That is, the perception we have of most cuisines is a false one - few societies as disconnected from agriculture have ever eaten animal products as we do - as a universal, seasonless food. 

So the first reality of food storage is that we’re headed back to the peasant cusines - as they existed for ordinary people.  That means fewer animal products all around - maybe none, since it is perfectly possible to produce brilliant, delicious food without it, or perhaps eaten as we once ate them, as the foods of France, Italy, Turkey, China, and other places evolved.  This involves sorting through the perceptions we’ve created of those cuisines - the cookbooks are written mostly for Americans and their huge, seasonless quantities of milk, eggs and meat, and the restaurant menus emphasize these foods that were once special. 

This is not a great loss, quite honestly.  It isn’t just that the cheap meat available to most of us is a pale imitation of real meat, thin of flavor and not very good for you, but those peasant cuisines were good as they were - we don’t need the sugar and fatted up versions - osso bucco every night is no treat.

Fresh vegetables can continue to be part of your meals, but seasonally so - and that means for those of us in cold climates, learning to love our winter vegetables, and to appreciate the cuisines that evolved around winter vegetables - around kales and cabbages, turnips, appples and squash.  This is not a loss, it is merely different. 

Diets rich in staple foods - rice, potatoes, wheat and oats are ones where highly seasoned foods shine - and that’s the place for home preservation.  The accent of carrot-ginger chutney against the plate of rice, dal and palak paneer, homemade cinnamon-tomato ketchup with baked sweet potato fries, the intense flavors of soy, garlic, vinegars, hot sauces, pickles, kimchi, mint, sweet fruit sauces and chutneys - these are the transformative accents that make simple superb.

One of the reasons I live the life I do is to eat well - we were never wealthy, could never afford all the good things that we most enjoyed - until we began to grow our own and raise our own we could never afford all the raspberries we cared to eat (and that’s a lot).  Until I foraged I never had all the morels I could want. In fact, I’ve never understood why it was that people who consider themselves “foodies” so often think of good food as something that you can buy - the truth is that many of the best tastes are things that literally cannot be purchased in most places - parsnips dug in a February thaw, with all their staches turned to sugar, corn picked after the steaming pot of water comes to boil, bread baked in a wood burning oven.  The peasant life isn’t just a practical strategy for dealing with less of everything - it is a way of getting more on your dinner plate.

  I don’t see any contradiction between being a foodie and storing food - but I do think that the degree to which you extract pleasure from your food storage diet depends on your willingness to shift the foods you are preserving and storing to the center of your meals at the times that suit them.  It is one more step in a seasonal diet - the experimentation with recipes that don’t involve eggs when eggs are not abundant, or which do take advantage of your abundant quinoa, your potent dried hot peppers and the very best of your local harvest, preserved in its essence to carry the warmth of the summer season into the coldest, darkest tastes of winter.


Teaching What You Know

Sharon January 20th, 2009

In Medical School, the rule of training is pretty simple.  Watch one.  Do one.  Teach one.  While this is probably something of an exaggeration when describing mastering the more intricate brain surgeries, it gets down to the fact that becoming an expert at even quite difficult things is really often a matter of simply getting down and doing it.

I think this model is probably a pretty good one for getting food storage and preservation out on the public table - ok, you’ve read me.  Maybe you’ve tried your hand at building a reserve, at canning, at making cheese or storing root vegetables.  Guess what?  There’s still another step.  Time to start teaching.

Now the simplest way to begin teaching is the person to person model - “Ok, I’m still new at it myself, but hey, I’ll teach you to make sauerkraut.”  When your friends and neighbors want to know about your new skills, you can offer to share them.  You don’t have to have mastered every intricacy, you don’t have to have it perfect.  All you have to do is know a little more than the person who is asking. 

But there’s more.  My goal is by the end of the class to put up a large number of printable handouts that can be used when you teach your own food storage and preservation classes.  Because the leadership your community needs may be yours - again, you don’t have to know everything, just enough to offer something - perhaps to help people get started with beginner food security or to introduce the concept of preserving your own to local food eaters who want to continue going through the cold or dry seasons.

The handouts will be set up and linked too later on, but I think it is important to realize that all of what we’re learning - not least me - can and should be transmitted to others on the “Read one.  Try one.  Teach one” model.  We can’t wait until each of us perfected our experience, and feels ready to teach. 


Not Advice, but a Warning

Sharon January 19th, 2009

Dear Mr. President-Elect (you can take that last modifier off in 24 hours),

I’m not writing this to give you advice - I think you could heat the White House for the next decade on the printouts of advice that have poured in from the famous, the not famous, the right, the wrong, the righteous and the self-righteous.  Some of it is very good - I would commend to you the material on The Oil Drum, for example, which begins from a set of assumptions both radical and alien to most of the people you have hired.  But I will not, from my own perspective, offer anything that resembles advice.

Instead, I would write to warn you about two dangers you face - one a danger to the moral and perhaps practical legitimacy of your presidency, and the second, a danger to the people you are supposed to protect.  To get there, I think we have to go back to Lincoln again.  It is a parallel you like, and one that I can understand the appeal of - in fact, I’ve written a piece that ties you to Lincoln myself here: But today’s focus is on a less heartening connection to the past.

Lincoln’s primary justification for waging the American Civil War, which laid waste to a large chunk of the nation and killed 620,000 Americans and an uncertain (but large) number of civilian casualties, was to preserve the Union.  The Union had fragmented over slavery, particularly slavery in the Western Territories, as you know, and for more than half a century, slavery had poisoned American discourse and American nationhood.  In the end, the failure of prior generations to resolve the conflict peacefully left us in a situation that nothing but war could resolve. 

But I ask you to make a thought experiment here.  Imagine that the US had fragmented over some issue other than slavery - if, for example, for economic or political reasons, the South had seceeded for primarily economic reasons that did not involve the enslavement of human beings?  What if we had waged the Civil War in the same way in every single particular, but over a growing Southern nationalism based primarily in a sense that the US was not one country and that the south would be better off alone?  Yes, I realize that this comes perilously close to justifying the account of the Civil War popular among some apologists who wish to erase slavery from the historical narrative and make the South’s secession primarily about some nobler agenda of state’s rights, but I think you can acquit me of that speciousness.

Do you see my point?  It is quite possible that Lincoln might have put down the South, and reunited the nation, but how would we view him, and his willingness to sacrifice nearly a million lives now? Were that the case, the war would have been the act of Northern Tyranny that some still believe it to be.  I think there is little doubt that Lincoln might have stood as our most Machiavellian president after that, but I doubt he would have been one of our greatest.

The irony, of course, is that ending slavery was not Lincoln’s primary reasoning - that is, Lincoln and his party were most concerned about the preservation of the Union and preventing the expansion of slavery into the West.  The Emancipation Proclamation was an afterthought, a political response that evolved out of perceived necessity, not out of Lincoln’s passionate desire for the freedom of the slaves.  He would have much preferred a gradual decline and compensation for southern slave owners, ending slavery in a few generations by attrition.  That is, the difference between Lincoln the tyrant and Lincoln the hero was not that his cause was just, but that his cause became just.  High as the cost was, it could be paid to end the great schism of slavery, to root out the poison that undermined American concepts of freedom.  But it could not be justly paid simply to keep others from choosing another way.

And the fact that some moral justification that transcended deep personal anger (and that personal anger is still in many ways real) existed, is what prevented America from becoming a fundamentally divided nation, an Ireland or Israel/Palestine.  That is, breaking the bounds of slavery freed everyone in a sense - southern farmers who could not compete economically with their neighbors without owning slaves, and those who were alive to the deep contradictions, as Sojurner Truth put it, “the little weasel” in the US Constitution were free to see themselves as part of a nation that believed in Freedom, if nothing else.  Lincoln himself came to realize this, when he said to Congress,

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”

I realize this is a rather historical discussion, so I’ll get back to the present.  The point of my comments is this - Lincoln very nearly paid a price that was too high for what he bought - when he began his exercise of trying to restore the Union, it was still possible that he might have bought us a Union that did not fully resolve the question of slavery.  Lincoln very nearly did become the tyrant some few still believe him to be.

I suspect you’ve already guessed the parallel I’m going to draw, but I’ll make it explicit - you stand in Lincoln’s shoes today, having embarked on a project whose price is far too high, and whose moral legitimacy is questionable at best.  You’ve decided your job is to save the economy, and to restore the American people to prosperity.  Everyone expects it of you - your own party has made this the central agenda, as the Republicans did for Lincoln.  But that way lies tyranny, and moral failure.  To do so represents the tyranny of the present over their posterity - the extraction of resources that will be urgently needed by your daughters and my sons and their children.  The direction you’ve taken, which involves salvaging the failed industrial and financial projects of the rich, rather than serving the poorest represents tyranny as well - wealth extracted from ordinary working people will now feed the rich, while California cuts off its disability payments to the poor, the lame, the blind.

It isn’t merely tyranny, though, although that would be bad enough.  It is also impossible to accomplish - you will not restore us to what we were at any time in the recent present, because even then, we were not as we seemed - that is, virtually all the accumulated wealth of the last decade and more that actually percolated down to ordinary people was illusory, debt-based, and based on false assumptions.  And all the wealth of the last few decades has been based on a rapidly declining natural resource base that is now not merely depleted, but emptying.  You will not restore us to past versions of our prosperity, nor can you carry the moral water of the preservation of the future on the backs of a false and tyrannical promise.

So my first warning is this - you must find another way, if you wish to walk anything like Lincoln’s path.  I know this will be difficult - and more difficult because most of those surrounding you most closely are not equipped to tell the truth, simply because they cannot see it.  Their worldviews are built around the enslavement of future generations for the preservation of the present.  They decline to see the cost of that enslavement - you cannot afford not to see it.  Because underneath your present justification, the one that leads to tyranny, is another moral ground - firmer and able to hold your weight and ours.  It is the hope that we could serve the future, and create a framework where “our posterity” is not used to support the present, but where the present serves the future.  I find it hopeful that the word “sacrifice” has already passed your lips - were I giving advice I’d suggest it keep coming out, that people be brought to understand that what they are buying is not a temporary ease, although you will use your resources to the utmost to soften the worst blows on those who cannot care for thsmelves - but that they are buying with their efforts real Hope, the kind that lasts past the end of the speech or the party.

In that regard, I’d remind you of another President, one with many flaws and imperfections, but a gift for a turn of phrase as well. John Adams said, “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer and his son be a poet.”  That is the natural order of things - that we who are grown and can bear the weight of the world on our shoulders sacrifice and prepare to give our children better than we had.  In the coming years, as food and energy become more acute issues, we face the reality that our daughters and sons may need to be farmers.  But they will not be able to live that life if we do not serve them now.  Nor will they inherit anything worth having if now we do not turn our resources not towards our highways, but towards the poor, the hungry, the disabled, those in need of medical care and education, and the weak.

Indeed, I think that you must know how terribly acute the present situation is, but so many voices speak in moderated terms that I worry you may not realize the depths of human suffering that other people face.  That’s something that presidents, who live in a form of isolation by necessity, sometimes forget.  Many people will cry victims in the next years - and some of them will be.  Others will be victims who can do something about their situation, if they are taught a measure of self-reliance, that virtue that was once so very American.  But the ability to sort out the real victims, the truly vulnerable, those who cannot save themselves, will be your job. It is not one I envy you, but I would observe that you might start by assuming that anyone who has ever had a salary that involved the words “millions” is not a victim worth worrying about. 

Which brings me to my second warning, for which I’m going to use Adams again.  But not John, Abigail.  In her famous letter to her husband, Abigail Adams wrote,

 “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

The Constitution which you bind yourself to uphold tomorrow is really quite clear on the obligations of citizens towards governments that are tyrannical.  I remind you of Abigail Adams’ call (and have my hopes that your wife will not permit you to forget) to remind you that the disenfranchised and powerless are not bound by the laws that abandon them - the only hope for the rule of law is to create a law and a nation that shelters us all.   Though women lack less for rights in their own right, we ladies are also mothers, aunts, grandmothers and protectors (and we come with an energetic host of passionate fathers, uncles, grandfathers and friends) of the children whose future bread our policies are devouring, whose energy we are consuming, whose stable natural environment we are throwing away.  The tyranny of the present over the future works only if those who guard the future do no rise up, and recognize the moral illegitimacy of any government that enslaves its children to pay its debts. 

Thus I also warn you of this - pay attention to your means, to your costs, and to the price you are asking others to pay.  If the price is too high, or the objective a false one, they will not pay it. I look to your inauguration torn - hoping, not wanting to hope too much, praying, perhaps that you may be able to do what is needed to guide us through these times.  But I put my faith not in you, but in the people - the ordinary people who have taken in trust the guardianship of something besides the Constitution - their posterity, and who will not see their future sold for something as cheap as simply going back to the good old/bad old days of affluence.  But they will follow you forward to a legitimate future, if you can guide us there.  

 am a patriot - by patriot I mean that I am proud of what is worth valuing in America.  My patriotism is rooted in the land, in the idea of preservation and sustenence of something that can be infinitely enriching and regenerating.  As Wendell Berry said, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”  And because I stand on this land, and hope to pass it on to my children, I do not wish to see America continue on a path away from moral legitimacy, nor do I wish to see it torn by the anger of those who are left out of the gifts of their land.

I realize this does not make your burdens any lighter, or your problems less acute. And here, I admit, I fall into the realm of advice giving - my apologies.  All I can say is this - begin as you mean to go on, remember Lincoln - the real Lincoln, remember your children, and I pray for you and my country.


Garden Design and Baby Noah

Sharon January 18th, 2009

First, I wanted to remind you all that despite being in the midst of my food storage class, we have not closed enrollment for Aaron and my Garden design class.  We finally sat down to really get to work on the structure of the class, and all I can say is that this is going to be cool!  Among other things, in each of four weeks we’re going to work on a model design project - the first will be a small, courtyard garden in a cold climate, consisting mostly of patio and a tiny bit of ground and no-or-city only livestock, the second will be a suburban yard in a warmer area with small livestock, then we’re going to move to a 2-3 acre parcel including some wetlands and larger livestock, and finally, we’re going to work on an urban farm design that uses multiple yards and lots in a given area, allowing a city or suburban resident to make use of 1/2-5 acres - but not all contiguous, or owned by them.  Meanwhile, class participants will be able to do their own design projects for their own properties (or borrowed ones) and start figuring out a plan to apply these tools.  We’ll cover annual vegetable cropping, herbs, perennials, permaculture, sun, soil and water, different climate issues and levels of water (from very wet to very dry) and whatever is of concern to others. 

If you’d like to join us, please send an email to [email protected].  Class is offered online, with a “go at your own pace” strategy but with material posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting the first Tuesday in February and running until the last Thursday.  Cost is $150 and payment can be made by paypal to [email protected] or by check to PO Box 342 Delanson, NY 12053.  We do have a couple of scholarship spaces still available for low income participants, so you can email me to request one.  In the past some kind readers have donated spots for low income participants - if you’d like to, please email me, and it will open a spot for someone in need.

Also, in March Aaron and I will be offering the Adapting-In-Place class again - this focuses on helping people who aren’t going to move into the perfect straw bale farmstead or new-urbanist walkable city deal with the coming energy transition.  The focus will be on living well where you are, and being prepared for major changes.  This is an intense and truly fascinating and fun class and it will be even better with Aaron involved.  If you are interested in joining us, the same information as above applies.  The cost for both Adapting-in-Place and Garden Design is $250.

 Finally, some of you enjoyed hearing the story of my Godson’s rather precipitous arrival and the response of his parents:  It turns out that their story was exciting enough that it made the nightly news in the Boston area.  If you’d like to see Noah and his parents, you can check it out here: Official public apologies from me for refering to my friend Chris as “my friend’s husband” throughout the piece I wrote as though he were secondary - at the time I wrote it, I didn’t know if they’d want to be publically known.  They didn’t mind ;-) .



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