Archive for May 19th, 2009

Real Life Food Storage Stories

Sharon May 19th, 2009

The single most gratifying thing that happens in my writing life is a particular kind of email.  In it, someone writes and tells me that they have just endured a difficult situation, whether a personal crisis or a regional one, and that because of the stuff I’d written about preparedness, they did ok.  These emails are sent to me privately, and I can’t repeat most of them in detail, but I thought I’d (anonymously) give a sense of the range of stories that I’ve been told, and the range of situations in which food storage and preparedness have been helpful.  All of these are real cases, and I post them because I think it is important to see how common it is to need a reserve of food or basic goods – that is, some of us really think of this as extreme behavior, or as something unusual, but in fact, putting by for difficult times is the most ordinary and normal thing imaginable.

While some of these are stories of major disasters, others are stories of increasingly common personal disasters - job loss, falling through a safety net, injury or illness.  The most common reasons for needing a reserve of food is simply that bad thing happen to us. And implied in choosing *not* to have a reserve is a level of dependence – it says “I’m just going to cast myself on the charity of others.”  Now there is nothing wrong with needing charity – I believe strongly that in a large measure the reason for government is to provide a safety net.  But along with one’s absolute right to take help when needed is the responsibility to do what you can to avoid taking help, particularly in times like these, when more and more people do need it.  There is never any dishonor in needing the food pantry.  But I think there is some in choosing, when you have a choice, not to protect yourself and your own, and thus, falling back on what are supposed to be solutions of last, rather than first resort. 

I recently got an email from a single Mom.  She relies on food stamps and child support to supplement her small income and make sure she can feed her three children.  Well, one month, her ex didn’t pay up, and the food stamp payment didn’t arrive because of an administrative error.  She had no money at all after the utility bill and house payment were made.  While she wouldn’t have starved, she would have had to spend much of her time going around to relief agencies begging for help, and they would have gone hungry - except that she had managed on her small budget to accumulate a large food reserve.  While she missed fresh food, her family ate, and she was spared the panic that she would have felt otherwise. She said her children really enjoyed the meals she cooked.

Last year, during the Midwest flooding, I got several emails from people who told me how helpful it was to have a reserve of food, but in particular, water.  Because water was contaminated in so many areas with agricultural chemicals and manures, which can’t necessarily be fixed by boiling, one person wrote me that their water was actually nauseating in smell.  There was no way his young son or pregnant wife was going to drink that stuff, so he was enormously grateful that they did not have to, that they had enough water stored to get through until the supplies stabilized.  He also wrote of how shocked his neighbors were when he offered to have them over for a barbecue – they were stunned that they still had food enough to share a week into the event.

A woman wrote me last fall from Houston, where many people were without power for several weeks after Hurricane Ike.  She said she was grateful for the stored food – because the grocery stores had no power, they were accepting only cash, and she and her husband had run out of cash a few days after the crisis.  They lived on their food, and had enough to share with their neighbors, also out of food.  Their only other chance would have been to be shuttled out of town to a relief center, and none of them would take their pets.  This meant they could stay safely home with their animals.

Another correspondent told me that her daughter was born two months early, from an emergency C-section due to a placental abruption.  Both she and her daughter were in danger, and her daughter remained hospitalized for several weeks.  Meanwhile, it was lambing season on their farm, and while she was spending all day at the hospital pumping breastmilk, and recovering from surgery and blood loss, her husband had the care of their young son during the busiest season of the year.  She told me that the home canned food she put up was their lifeline – the meals were boring, but they were already ready, and she didn’t have to feel guilt about opening jars of homemade applesauce and beef stew for her husband and son, when that was all she could manage.  They did not shop for a full month, and they were fine.

 I’ve had a number of correspondents from the ice storms that hit this past year in the Northeast and in Kentucky.  One of them told me that she and her husband were out of reach of any transport because of downed trees for 11 days.  They had no power, and thus no well pump, and they and the three other families on their road lived pretty much entirely on their stored food and water, cooking on their woodstove.  No one else had anything prepared at all.

I’ve heard many stories about the value of food storage in job losses lately as well.  A man emailed me to tell me that both he and his wife, employed by the same company, were laid off in January on the same day.  Their income dropped by 50% that afternoon, and he said that food storage made it possible for them to make reasoned choices, to take their time and figure out what to do, rather than going immediately into default on their mortgage.  If they’d had to buy food, they wouldn’t have been able to keep up the mortgage payments.  As it was, they cut back on everything else, and have been able to stay in their house until the school year was over and also actually sell their house, rather than losing it. 

In another case, a woman writes from a place where she’s one of many people in great distress.  She’s raising her grandkids, because her daughter is mentally ill, and she hasn’t had a job since November.  The food pantries don’t have enough to go around, and her neighbors who go to the soup kitchens say you have to get there early, and stand in line, because the soup runs out when the lines are still backed up around the corner.  My correspondent has enough money for unemployment to pay her rent, but not enough for much in the way groceries, and not enough in food stamps to get by, and she doesn’t want her grandkids to join the kids in her neighborhood who only get to eat at school.  But she’s got a big pantry, and even though she’s been relying on it for months, she says there’s still enough to invite in the neighbor kids after school for cookies and milk – the milk is powdered, the cookies have fewer chocolate chips in them than they used to.  But she’s keeping her grandbabies fed, and she’s making sure that some of the hungry kids in her neighborhood get something to eat other than tater tots on a tray once a day.

I hope for everyone that none of us ever need our food storage, that it is always an agreeable luxury.  But the odds are good that it won’t be for everyone.  And I hope maybe knowing that you can need it tomorrow, not just in the event of some huge disaster, makes the project seem less abstract and more real.


Planning for the Harvest or, Time Management for Overworked People

Sharon May 19th, 2009

Despite the fact that you’ve got a life, a job, a family, volunteer responsibilities and enough backlog in your life to keep you busy until 2182, you’ve decided that you are going to do food preservation too. And you are definitely wondering if you are a little nuts.  After all, this means finding time to do so, and isn’t always easy.  It helps to plan for the realities of the harvest – and this is planning that applies both to people with gardens who may now be planting, and people who plan to put up food from local farmers. 

Now for those of you planting right now, it is possible to use a few tricks to make some of the things you harvest come when you want them – not everything can be done this way, but since none of us have so much time that we can afford to waste it, there are a few tricks worth knowing.  For those of you not able to control the harvest – ie, you are getting things when the farmers have them, console yourself with the fact that not growing a garden,  almost certainly takes less time than growing one, even with the time saving tips ;-).

The way harvesting typically goes is that for a long time it is slow, slow, slow….and then oh, crap, what do I do with all these beans and the blueberries and the…  Now there are several ways to address this.  I know someone who takes her vacation in late July every year, so she  pickles, cans, jams and preserves her way through the bounty.  Other people simply recognize “ok, no point in picking more than I can put up after dinner and on the weekends, so might as well give the extra away.”  Others of us, perpetual optimists, take the course of saying “of course I’ll do it, even though I don’t immediately see how or when” and then end up with rotting tomatoes on the counter.  This latter one is not the recommended method, but I seem to do it surprisngly often ;-)

The first thing that helps is obvious – do you know when things are going to come ripe?  When you planted your currant bushes and apple trees, did you look at the ripening dates?  If the currants are always ready the second week of July, you already know that you have to make time for them then – they won’t wait.  So that means that when you are setting up your schedule, you can add “currants” to it, right along with the dentist appointments and the lunch with your sister.  One of the problems with domestic work is that we tend not to view it as important in the same way appointments are important, so we don’t make time for it.

The next thing you can do is ask yourself whether you really need to preserve everything in sight.  That may sound odd coming from me, but the truth is, some foods really aren’t that great when preserved, even if they are fabulous fresh.  I love fresh figs, but I think dried figs are only ok – so why not enjoy the figs while they are fresh and then just wait until next year – there are plenty of other fruits out there.  I adore fresh asparagus, but don’t think frozen, dried or canned asparagus is all that great, so I just look forward every year to asparagus season, and preserve other foods.  The idea of preserving is to make sure you have plenty to eat, and also to make sure that you get to take some essence of summer (or the wet season) into winter (or the dry season) – that is, that you take the abundance that the growing season offers and put it away.  But that abundance should be good – if you were starving, fine, you’d eat canned asparagus.  But right now, you have the choice of deciding whether to plant or buy more asparagus or more green beans.  So plant and preserve what you actually like to eat.

These strategies can help, but preserving itself is a time commitment, and when the food needs you, it needs you.  So find out when the CSA expects to have its peaches, look up when those Wolf River apples come ripe, ask around about when it is time to hunt for morels, and add them to your schedule.  If anyone asks, you can say you have lunch planned with Mr. Peach ;-) .

You also want to plan you plantings around your intentions.  If you want to root cellar your apples, instead of saucing or drying them, you probably want apples that are harvested late in the season, when it is quite cold – otherwise, you may have trouble storing them.  Some of our harvest planning comes when planting – if your beets are mostly going in the root cellar, you will want them to be ready when it gets cold, so there’s no point in planting them in April – they’ll just get woody sitting in the ground. 

If you want to put everything up at once, you probably want a lot of paste tomatoes of one variety – an early one, or a late one – that way, the week you’ve devoted to tomato canning will provide you with lots.  If you don’t know when that will be for your local farm, talk to them now, maybe even put in a reservation for extras. 

If you would rather do this gradually, a little at a time, you’ll want a staggered harvest – instead of planting 50 pickling cucumber plants tomorrow, plant 10, and plant another 10 in three weeks.  Make sure you think about this in terms of perennials – instead of 50 strawberry plants of one variety, how about 15 each of an early, mid and late season.

What preserving technique do you want to use for each crop?  If I want to dehydrate, and use the sun instead of coal powered electricity, that means I need the crops to come ripe when it is still early in the season – my best dried apples will be from the early apples that ripen in August and September, since I can’t use my solar dehydrator much in October.  But if I want sauce, I’m going to enjoy standing over a hot canning kettle a lot more in chilly October, than I am in steamy August.  Sometimes you are stuck – the blueberries come in July, and there’s really no way to mess with that.  But a surprising number of crops have a wide range of harvest times.  Obviously, this will vary a lot with your climate, so think about what’s realistic.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to can when it is cooler, dehydrate in the warm weather, root cellar when it is getting quite cold, lactoferment in the cooler weather (fermentation happens *very* fast in warm weather, and it can be hard to keep the stuff), preserve meat when it is cooler (since you are less likely to have spoilage while smoking, drying, or cutting), preserve eggs and milk when they are flush (ie, in the spring and early summer), and make alcohol/preserve with alcohol and vinegar when it is warm (since things ferment so nicely. 

There are some crops that simply have to be dealt with when they are ready, and it makes sense to put a list of these together – strawberry time is june, sweet corn is at its best in August, the pumpkins are ripe in October.  So I need to remember that I’ll be making pumpkin leather in October, strawberry jam and dried strawberries in June and dried, frozen and canned sweet corn in August.  It is really up to you whether you’d like to do a bit at a time or in one swell foop – I actually prefer to simply suck it up and put up several hundred ears of corn at once, because I find the job so annoying that I’d just rather get it over with.  Since corn silk and bits of corn end up everywhere, I’d rather have the mess one time in the summer, two at most, and be done with it.  Other people might reasonably prefer to put up a dozen ears here, a dozen there.

In the heat of summer, if you are going to harvest, you need to have time to preserve – all of us have probably left something “just a little longer” in the summer, only to find swarms of fruit flies or a yucky pile of rotting fruit at the end of it.  Things go bad fast – and things get ripe fast.  Remember, that tiny 2 inch zucchini is going to be a 2 footer by tomorrow.  So keeping up with things is one of the keys to enjoying this.

So is getting many hands to make light work – if you have to husk corn or shell peas, don’t just do it, get everyone to do it.  Invite friends to come and help with the preserving, in trade for lessons or a few jars of jam.  The work bee has a long history.  So does “making your loved ones suffer a bit too ;-) ).  Make it as pleasant as you can – put on loud rock and roll, or quiet jazz.  Watch a movie while you snap the green beans, get sweetie to rub your back while you shell peas. 

There are tools to make things easier.  Some of them work, some of them don’t – it really depends.  A lot of it is a matter of preference -for example, I’ve used every imaginable tool to cut corn off the cob, and come to the conclusion that they all suck ;-) , and that a knife is no harder – the ring sort cause my fingers to go numb eventually, which probably isn’t good, the slide kind causes me to cut my fingers.  On the other hand, a good cherry pitter can save you hours of labor if you have a lot of cherries.  Experimenting with the right tools can make your life easier, but don’t assume that just because a tool exists, you need it.

Some steps that make preserving take longer can be skipped.  For example, I never take tomato skins off before I can tomatoes – I just decide that I don’t mind tomato skin.  Blanching when dehydrating is one of those things that varies a lot – a lot of books tell you to do it (I have one that suggests you blanch grapes, which is just totally insane), and it may well get you better textures or tastes, but I believe firmly it is always good to see if you can get away with skipping extra steps.  The exception, to this is in canning, where skipping steps can give you botulism poisoning, so that would be the only place I recommend against experimentation – otherwise, try it and see!

Some jobs can be put off – for example, I know someone who shoves all her tomatoes into the freezer, and then cans them in December, when she’s got no other canning to do.  I always think this is a great idea, and then don’t have room in my freezer.  Maybe you can get the farmer to store your apples or potatoes until it gets cold enough – just ask if you can pick them up in November. 

And you should always ask yourself “is the result worth the effort.”  Sometimes, if you are new to this, you won’t know, but after that first year, ask yourself – how convenient was it to have tomatoe sauce or salsa right there for all those meals? Do we really love pickled dilly beans enough for me to make them again?  Are we fig preserves people?  A lot of the time, the answer is yes – watching my boys devour an entire jar of pickles, for example, or being able to have green gage plum jam on fresh bread in January is definitely worth it.  On the other hand, while I like pickled beets, I find I don’t care enough to bother pickling them – I’m happy to eat them fresh out of the cellar. 

I’ve found that I save a lot of time that way – for years, we would blanch and freeze broccoli for winter, but we always would eat everything else first.  Finally, we decided we just don’t like frozen broccoli, and we’re happier with chopped frozen kale in the winter months – poof, that’s one job down.  Or we decide that an easier technique is as good – I like both canned and dried sweet corn, but it is less effort to throw the corn in the solar dehydrator than it is to can it, so I’m canning a bit less.

Remember, little bits count.  So you only canned 3 pints – so what?  That’s three weeks of jam, or three meals of carrots.  So all you had the energy to do was to hang up those herbs to dry today – great, you’ve got enough sage now for the whole month of December.  A little at a time adds up fast.  Yes, you may want to do bigger jobs sometimes, but every little bit helps!


Food Storage Baby Steps – Project One "Thinking It Through"

Sharon May 19th, 2009

I know a lot of you who have been reading me for a while will have already got this down, but I know how overwhelming the idea of building up a significant reserve of food can be.  So I thought it was worth breaking down the steps – baby steps. 

Project one – Sit down with a cup of tea.  I give you official permission to use another beverage if you prefer, but get a drink, tell the kids to go outside and play, the spouse that you are busy, get a pen and paper, and give yourself a little quiet time before you begin rushing madly off in all directions (and yes, I do know how hard it is to find the time – I’ve got four kids, remember ;-)).  Put on some music, breathe deeply, put your feet up, and relax a littlle.

All of the first projects under this heading involve drinking something and having time to think.  So wait until you’ve got them, and come into this not in a panic “I’ve got to get food now!” but calmly.  Now, you are going to do three things.

1. You are going to sit down and list 4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 4 dinners and 4 snacks that use mostly ingredients that can sit on a pantry shelf or come out of your garden and *that your family likes.*  They don’t have to be complicated – in fact, ideally they won’t be.  If you can’t think of enough of each, begin thinking through the recipes you make regularly, and asking “could I adapt this – that is, could it use shelf stable tofu instead of the fresh stuff, could I try it with kale instead of spinach in the late fall.”  You can get seasonal about it, listing separate meals for different seasons, but if that seems overwhelming, just focus on four basic meals that everyone will eat – pasta with tomato-garlic sauce, your best dal recipe, stuffed wontons…whatever. 

This will be the basis of your first food storage projects – you are going to build up enough of the ingredients to be able to make these meals easily, without going to the store.  These are things you will eat anyway.  These are things that will save you time, if you don’t have to run out when you need the ingredients.  This is not a commitment to anything strange or weird – it is just shopping ahead.  So figure out how many times you want to be able to make these meals.  Let’s say you get the ingredients to do each of them four times (and if money is tight, it may take some weeks to gradually add a little extra to your cart) – by then, you’ll have 16 days of food you like in the house without much extra worry.  If you can get case or bulk discounts, you will probably even save some money.  And it is food you are going to eat anyway.  If you are ambitious, and no one has interrupted you, make the grocery list(s).

2. Now you are going to get up and walk around your house.  Because the next project is finding some space for food storage.  Now buying a few extra ingredients probably won’t require you to do any major rearranging, unless you have a miniscule kitchen.  Even then, you should be able to fit a lot of this food in the cupboards if you do some rearranging.  Don’t do it now – today we’re still drinking tea – but put that on your “to do soon” list – just sort through the cupboards, move the stuff you don’t use that often, consider getting rid of things. (You know how the nesting bowls always get cluttered because you only use the bottom 2 regularly, so the little ones are all over the place, and how your baking area has 6 little heart shaped tart pans that you use once a year, if that… that stuff can get moved to a different place, odds are.  We have the sense that all like things must go together in a kitchen, but this was not actually laid down as law anywhere I know of ;-) )

But if your goal is to get more food than just your meal list, you’ll need space for it. So now is the time to begin looking.  How are you fixed for closet space?  Could anything be packed up and moved around (remember, if you haven’t used it in a while, you probably could move it).  Are you storing any junk (and no, it doesn’t count if all the “junk” belongs to your partner, and your stuff is “good stuff” that is absolutely needed – first rule of decluttering is “you’ve got to get rid of some of your own stuff” ;-) ) that could be given away or sold?  What about under the bed?  What about the basement?  What about up along the top of the kitchen cabinets?  What about your bedroom?  Just because it is food, doesn’t mean it has to live in the kitchen.  Ideally, what you want is a pantry space – so now is the time to establish one.  What will you need?  Do you need shelving?  Need to rearrange furniture?  Need to build something?  Have a yard sale?  Again, don’t do it, make a list.  There’s still one more step.

The third thing you are going to do is make another cup of tea or other preferred beverage and answer some questions.  You may want to run these questions by other members of your family, or you may not, but the idea is to help you figure out what you want.  You don’t have to write the answers, although you might want to. 

1. What am I storing food for?  What are my concerns?  What kinds of situations are likely in my region? 

2. How much food do I want to store?  For how many people?  For how many pets?  How much water do I want to store?  Am I likely to have people outside my immediate household who are with us in a crisis?  Are there other things I want to store – clothing, medical supplies, tools?  What are they?

3. How much time and energy do I have to devote to this?  How much space do I realistically think I have to devote to this? How much money can I spend each week/month on this project.  What are my biggest constraints (ie, is my family not supportive, am I working long hours, are there no good sources of bulk food near me?)  How might I overcome them?

4. Where will my stored food come from?  How much of it will I grow/produce?  What are my goals for food preservation?  How much of my food will I buy, and from where?  What can I get locally, and what do I have to get through the industrial food system?  What’s the best and most ethical source for my food?  Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote – if you spend it at an industrial source, you say “great, do more of this” – if you spend it locally, you say the same thing to your local farmer.  Now every one of us buys some food through the industrial system it is safe to say, and some of us don’t have the money or the access to do more than get their food any way they can.  Those people are off the hook – but if you have *any* discretionary food income, you need to think a little about the votes you are casting when you buy food.  Also, how can I use my food storage to save money and time?

5. What do I imagine doing with my food storage?  Do I want it mostly to provide a hedge against a crisis, or for day to day use?  Do I imagine myself eating regularly out of it and replacing it?  Do I want to be able to share with others, or is my first priority protecting my own?  How will I prevent loss of food to age, insects, mold?  That is, what’s my plan for making sure the older food gets eaten regularly and that I’m adding more food as I go – food is not like antiques, it doesn’t get better with age ;-) .  How much am I and my family prepared to adapt our eating habits so that we get the most out of our food storage – that is, we save the most money, we make fewer trips, we always have food to hand, as well has having a reserve? 

6. Finally, ask “Do I have to do this all alone?” How can I get others – from my own family to my neighbors and my town or city involved in the project of becoming more food secure? How can I see my own food security as part of a larger community project. Do I have neighbors who might be interested in forming a buying club, a coop or simply in a “stocking up” club?  Do I have friends who would like to share the work of preserving?  Are there people in my community who could benefit from food storage – can I get them involved?  Should my community have a reserve of food on hand in case of a crisis – can I bring this up with my municipality?  What about water – does my community have water pumping stations for when the power is out?  Could they be established?  Are there community resources I don’t know about – gleaning programs, bulk buying groups, community kitchens, food preservation classes, friends with the same interests.  What’s out there?

And what’s in here?  Is my family supportive?  Neutral? Hostile?  Are there ways to get them on board?  How did I approach this issue, if they aren’t interested in participating - could I approach it differently, with a emphasis on saving money, or on likely short term emergencies (hurricanes, blizzards, power outages) in ways that would be less scary than the way I came at it?  Can I involve my husband, my wife, my partner, my kids, my parents, my friends?  Can I get them excited about helping with the menus, picking out things to store, building projects, saving money, working together as a family? 

Ok.  Now that you are done drinking tea, and probably have to pee ;-) , you can stop.  That’s enough for today – I know you are all excited, and I can’t stop you from running off to reorganize the kitchen and buy 60 cans of tomatoes, but I’d encourage you to stop here, and leave some stuff for tomorrow, so you’ll remain enthusiastic, rather than getting exhausted and overwhelmed.  Although if you really, really can’t stand waiting to reorganize a kitchen, you are welcome to come over and do mine ;-) .

 Ok, next step – the first shopping trips!