Archive for June, 2011

Home Is Where Left and Right Meet

Sharon June 27th, 2011

Russell Arben Fox has a completely fascinating essay about bringing Shannon Hayes’ work on radical homemaking to a Mormon women’s group.  He writes:

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a panel discussion (at this conference, with the wonderful people you see on the left) which took off, in many different directions, from Hayes’s insistence upon thinking seriously about just what “making” a simple, sustainable, spiritually-edifying “home” truly consisted of. What I wanted to do was plant some seeds of discussion (seeds which grow in surprising directions in Hayes’s book), presenting the “home” as something other than a unit of consumption, other than a place where individuals rest their heads and eat their meals and watch their television shows, all of which require ever-increasing (and often debt-driven) economic participation to keep going. In preparation for that, I asked a Mormon audience exactly what kind of “homemaking” and “enrichment” activities their local congregations still participate in, if any. The answers were, to say the least, revealing. And they should be-for some decades, extending for many years out beyond Mormonism’s 19th-century pioneer period, the ability to live frugally, to share resources and skills with family and friends so as to become self-sustaining, to basically dissent from the pursuit of wealth and growth, was an unstated principle of a great deal that Relief Society did. Enriching the home meant making it more tendable, more nuturable, more amenable to (one might say more “organic to”, but such language is unfortunately foreign to most American Mormons, whether in the 19th century or today) the work and production and play of those who live there, rather than more dependent upon the size of the paycheck brought home and the caprice of the market in general. That distant ideal remains a half-life existence throughout much of Mormon culture (and not just Mormons-Laura McKenna, who confessed herself highly attracted to much of Hayes’s call, has made clear her own disposition to the “pioneer virtues” of “making do or doing without” before as well).

Part of this story, of course, can’t be told without talking about Mormonism’s ultimately mostly abandoned effort to develop a truly alternative-more communitarian, more egalitarian, more localized-culture and economy in Utah. This is part of why I’d love to see Hayes’s book be the centerpiece of a Relief Society lesson: because in the mostly conservative, mostly middle- and upper-class white American Mormon church, Hayes’s righteous attacks on capitalism as an economic system which drives us to debt and competition, invades the sanctity of the home which consumer values and fears, and commodifies and individualizes our most intimate and emotionally connective choices…well, it might not go over too well. But then again, if it was stated by way of quoting 19th-century church leaders and passages of scripture which make essentially the same point, maybe some real enrichment could be possible.

What struck me as fascinating about Fox’s analysis is that it reveals the deep compatibility - and underlying anti-capitalist sentiment that structure what are often seen as antithetical parts of the political spectrum.  Now this is not news in a way.  Anyone who has joined a homesteading list, or attempted to study self-sufficiency skills, particularly traditionally female domestic skills like preserving food, fiber arts, and other domestic labor has probably noticed the confluence of hippies in peasant skirts with conservative Christian women in modest dress, anarchist women in black and orthodox Jewish women in long denim skirts, Republican farmwives from Montana and left-leaning urban farmers from New York City or Chicago, older women from churches in their crowns who kept the skills alive and young women trying to grasp them and learn.

The internet makes these comings together more possible, of course, but they aren’t the whole of the thing.  My neighborhood knitting group (which admittedly I rarely have time to attend) runs the political and religious spectrum, and ranges in age from an 11 year old working on her first scarf to a 55 year old also on her first scarf (her grandmother tried to teach her) to a recent immigrant in her 20s from east Africa on her first scarf (her first winter in upstate New York made evident the benefits of knitting)  to a host of experienced knitters ranging from 14 (we have two extraordinarily experienced and gifted young teenage knitters - one the daughter of a conservative Christian family who has been knitting since she was 7, the other the daughter of leftist Waldorf devotees knitting since she was 5 - both of them are best friends, and both  help me with complicated cables and knit about as easily as they breathe) to 92 and able to claim that she has knitted more than 500 sweaters in her lifetime!

The affirmation of the domestic sphere, of the informal economy and of women’s work is itself a radical act in a culture that assumes that one should purchase all goods and services once provided by the informal economy.  Any of you who have read _Depletion and Abundance_ will know that I consider the dismantling of the informal economy (which is the larger portion of the world economy, represent 3/4 of total economic activity) in the developed world and the undermining of the Global South’s informal economy to be a disaster in the making, as we run out of the fuel (and the ability to safely burn it, if such a thing can ever be said to have existed) that permitted this.

Fox’s article, with its exploration of the different ways that different communities speak of this loss, the different languages that add up to the same thing - a recognition that the privatization of the domestic sphere has undermined our basic safety.  Whether you speak in terms of conserving the past, of spiritual arguments of many kinds or in terms of peak oil and climate change, there is something fundamentally radical about every attempt to reclaim the home as a site of productivity, a place where economic security is created, rather than a sink for resources.

It is hard to overstate how radical this is - consider, for example, the economic implications for housing of a culture that values the land that houses are built on for their potential economic productivity.  Consider the danger to a consumer economy of a culture of making do and making it yourself - 70% of our economy is consumer activity.  The affirmation of the home as the center of things, as a site of complex resistance to the totalizing formal economy’s attempts to claim all of us is truly radical - and it is being affirmed on right and left, by Mormons and Pagans, by atheists and the orthodox of many stripes, by feminists and by traditionalists.

The transformation of the home into a site of production, redistribution and community is a threat to a totalizing formal economy that claims it needs all of everyone’s productivity all the time.  It is a threat to a model that says that neither men nor women can be released to stay home with a sick child or an elderly parent (yes, nominally you can, but only if you can afford it), to nurse a baby or even be there to cook dinner.  Both adults must be working at all times to increase productivity.  All children must be being trained at all times for future productivity.  The formal economy has claimed us, devoured the time we once spent on other things, and claimed our future as well.

The problem, as we have seen in the last few years is that the formal economy is very vulnerable - it depends on things that no one really controls.  Historically speaking as peasant economist Teodor Shanin and other economic historians have documented, in times when the formal economy fails, the informal economy - made up of domestic work, untaxed barter, volunteerism, family exchanges of resources and even the criminal economy - rises up to keep people fed.  It was the informal economy that in Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union averted starvation - even though conventional economic models argued people should be starving.

What Transition calls “reskilling” - what other people call by other names, including Christian homemaking and radical homemaking, and “doing it like Grandma used to” is actually the reinvention of the most important resource we may have for our future - the restoration of the informal economy.  It is a hugely political and hugely important act, being done by multiple ends of the political spectrum at once, and this matters.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real and significant differences between how this is framed and established that matter a lot.  They matter to me personally obviously (for example that gay families not get short shrift and that women have the right to control their bodies) and they matter politically.  It isn’t the case that the Quiverfull Moms and the anarchists Moms are always going to agree - or that there aren’t some deep issues to be worked out if there is common ground to be found.

At the same time, given the critical importance of reinventing the damaged informal economy, this work is worth doing - moreover it already going on among people on each end of the political spectrum, through the middle and by people who could care less about politics but just want healthy food, a garden and a nice warm quilt to sleep under.  The very fact that this work is being done across the spectrum suggests that it is a site for organizing and work that could be expanded upon, grown and produce fruit - not easily or without considerable work, but then nothing really worth having ever comes but with that hard labor.



Sharon June 27th, 2011

Friday was a fabulous day, after a very, very long week.  For a week, we frantically prepared for our final home visit.  Some of it was pretty normal stuff - minor repairs, etc… Some of it, I think was pretty weird - who knew that freshly washed window screens were a requirement to be a good foster parent (yes, they did explicitly require that). They gave us hoops, and we jumped through like trained tigers ;-) .

We passed - in what is still the first biggest news here in our particular tiny household in New York, Eric and I will be (as soon as the paperwork is processed) New York State foster parents and eligible to accept placements.  After this, we wait for an appropriate placement, and go from there.

Outside our little household, obviously the biggest news in New York was that we finally caught up with cultural leader Iowa and got gay marriage!!!!! YESSSSSSSSS!!!  No longer do I have to explain to my sons why New York’s marriage laws are so much stupider than other states.  Plus, we’ve got some parties to go to!
All in all, Friday was a terrific day - gay marriage, certification, heck, even gelato with friends.  What’s not to love about that!  Plus, now the blog’s back and I can give you all my full attention.

Eric and I have never had a Jewish wedding - we had a civil wedding in MA many moons ago, before my conversion was completed, but for various reasons we have long put off a religious wedding, in part because I was unwilling to have one in a state or a movement that didn’t affirm gay marriage (and yes, I know that technically the state marriage didn’t matter anyway).  My religious movement got its act together some years ago.  On Sunday, at our Rabbi’s house, celebrating his daughter’s 8th birthday, our Rabbi asked “So, NOW can I marry you two?”  I guess I have to say yes ;-) - so parties all ’round!

(I should note that while many of my atheist colleagues at science blogs are rightly deploring the role of religious leaders in undermining gay marriage, my Rabbi is by no means atypical - my Conservative synagogue, my mother’s Episcopal church and the churches, temples, covens and synagogues of millions led the way on this issue - they offered gay marriage long before states began to do so, and they have been speaking from the pulpit in favor of gay marriage and trying to bring the law and their communities into sync for many years.  My parents stood up and married in their church some years before they could do it in their state - and that’s true for thousands and thousands of gay people whose religious communities have taken the lead in social justice!)

I missed the first round of gay marriages in Massachusetts - my best friend was out cheering at Cambridge City Hall at midnight when the doors opened and the first celebrations began.  We weren’t at my mother and step-mother’s legal wedding (although we were certainly at their church wedding some years before that!).  Jesse, my friend called me so I coud hear the cheering and weeping for joy, and I wanted to be there as he was.  Every friend and acquaintance I had called that day to ask if my mother and step-mom were really going to do it, to congratulate us and them.  I couldn’t be there - we were caring for Eric’s grandparents and couldn’t leave them.  I told my boys, most of whom were too small to really understand that they were around for something important that day.  It felt like a large segment of the nation was partying - and that can only be a good thing.

You can be sure my family will be out there celebrating the first marriages in New York, that my sons, now old enough to care about justice and to understand what’s at stake will be out there celebrating. And again, I guess there’s no reason not to stand up under a chuppah ourselves.  As it should be - parties all ’round!!!


Food Storage With Pregnant Women, Infants and Children

Sharon June 21st, 2011

Note: Rerun time - I’m spending this week getting ready for the final home visit.  After a disastrous visit by a social worker (not ours, thankfully) who was appalled by our farm and way of life, I’m not taking any chances.  So you get re-runs - but this is at least 3 years old and bears repeating, IMHO.  I’ve met so many people over the years who never expected to be pregnant (or pregnant again), caring for a grandchild or sibling’s child, etc…  Crises breed (so to speak) these sorts of situations - so please, even if you think you are past babies, or not going to conceive yourself, do think about it.)

This week I’m going to spend a lot of time on specific needs, and how to adapt your food storage to meet those needs.  Among the most common special circumstances is a childbearing woman, infant or young children.  Even if you personally are male or past childbearing, you may end up being the place of respite for family who have these issues in a crisis, and it is, IMHO, important to think about them.  I have encountered many people over the years who never expected to see their children suddenly arrive back home, to end up raising their nephews or grandchildren, or never expected to get pregnant (or pregnant again) and did.  Do not think that this information could never be relevant to most of us.  Remember, plans are good – but plans go awry regularly.

The first, and probably most essential component here is water.  I know a lot of people respond to my discussions of storing water as “ok, we’ve moved into total whack-job territory.”  And yet, I’m going to say that this is particularly important if your household includes or might include pregnant women, infants or very young children who are especially vulnerable to disease, parasites and chemical contaminations.  They also all have very little toleration for dehydration or water stress.

So if you have or might have young children, pregnant women or infants, store water, and have a way of filtering water in the long term.  If you have a limited supply of filtered or known safe water, and are worried about contamination, the last people to touch potentially contaminated water should be children or pregnant women – lifelong consequences are possible.

Pregnant women need more water and more of some nutrients.  Storing a pregnancy multivitamin if you could potentially become pregnant is not a bad idea.  Regular multivitamins will mostly suffice, though, if a varied diet is possible.  Folate (found in eggs and greens) and protein are particularly important - make sure pregnant women get more of these foods.

One issue for pregnant women may be nausea – on a food storage diet it is particularly difficult to deal with food issues.  To the extent you can, women in early pregnancy suffering from nausea should be accomodated in any way possible - the reality is that hunger makes the nausea worse and can result in a “death spiral” of being unable to eat or keep anything down long enough to deal with hunger induced increases in nausea.  This can cause dehydration, occasionally even death.  So if you are relying on food storage and have a sick pregnant woman, do the best you can to find something she can eat, if you know you plan to be pregnant and have specific triggers you might consider storing them, also if you plan to be pregnant, sea bands or ginger might work (nothing worked for me ;-) but I mention it).

Otherwise, pregnancy doesn’t require special foods.  But infants do.  Infants under 4 months (6 months is considered ideal) should be exclusively breast-fed whenever possible.  Breastfeeding is essential – and in a crisis, it can actually save lives.  Formula often becomes unavailable in a crisis, and a nursing mother can not only keep her own infant hydrated (even if she is suffering from dehydration she will continue to make some milk) but potentially other infants as well who can drink expressed milk in a bottle or cup or be taught to nurse (sometimes).  While not every woman can nurse, far more can than do, and for longer than most American women do. There’s more on the value of this here:

But what about women who can’t nurse, or those who adopt? And, for that matter, I’m going to say something that most mothers don’t like to hear.  We aren’t immortal or invulnerable – trust me, I know how it feels to believe that you have to be ok, because your children depend so much on you.  But things happen sometimes to mothers.  And the survival of our babies and children shouldn’t depend on the ability of any one adult to be present and to feed them.  So having some kind of backup situation makes sense.

That backup situation could be another lactating woman in close proximity, it could be a goat (not a cow), or it could be a store of infant formula.  I know that we should whenever possible, store what we use and vote with our dollars.  But every time I had a baby, before I gave birth, my husband and I bought a six month supply of generic, cheap infant formula.  It lasts about 2 years in storage (and unopened can be safely used for another year or two, but will lose nutritional value and may not adequate, so do this only in a dire emergency to keep a baby alive – a wet nurse or goat would be better) and before it expired, we would give it to our local food pantry that always desperately needed formula.

I am a passionate advocate of breastfeeding – but I care much more that babies live even if their Moms aren’t around, or can’t nurse them, and someone be able to take care of the babies around them. Only you know if your circumstance merits doing this, but it is something to think seriously about – I think of it as a charitable donation, one I hope never to need myself.

Once an infant is 4 months old (again, six is considered optimal, but by 5 months my kids were always grabbing food out of my mouth at the table, so thought they were ready), you can gradually begin transitioning them to mashed up solids.  (Actually, when I was an infant, solids were begun as early as 6 weeks – this is not recommended now, but if formula or breastmilk were in short supply, it could be considered – again, do it only if you have to.)  Waiting longer is considered better, particularly if you have a family history of food allergies.

Babies don’t need “baby food” per se, although it is good to start them on mashed up very simple, low allergen foods like white rice, greens, potatoes or orange vegetables.   But again, they should be primarily getting their food from mother’s milk, goat’s milk or formula until nearly a year – babies need a high fat, high protein, high quality diet.  If you think they may come into your orbit, store for them.

Young children, under 2, need more fat than most people, so storing some extra high fat food is a good idea.  Fish oil is a particularly useful thing if you can keep it cool, because it enhances brain development. Otherwise, they simply need a balanced, healthy diet.  But this can be tough with young children, since toddlers often are extremely picky eaters.  This means that storing familiar foods and getting kids familiar with whole foods used in storage is especially important.

Toddler pickiness has some evolutionary advantages – as they get more mobile, they get more choosy about what they eat, which is protective.  It is helpful to recognize that this is a passing stage, and just concentrate on finding foods they like.  Remember also that toddlers often have to encounter an unfamiliar food over and over again before they will try it – keep trying.   Generally speaking, if they aren’t making a radical dietary transition – that is a complete break from familiar foods – which they shouldn’t be, since we’re all trying to eat what we store – kids won’t generally do themselves any harm.

For healthy older children, I think a low-tolerance policy towards picky eating is important – I’ve written more about getting over picky eating here.  And again, kids make it extra-urgent that you begin eating out of your food storage regularly.


Putting Canning In Perspective

Sharon June 7th, 2011

I wrote Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage because when it came time for me to take the next steps in eating locally and homegrown - to holding some of summer’s bounty for the long winter, there wasn’t any book that really covered what all I needed to know. After writing A Nation of Farmers about the “Why” of growing your own and eating locally, I ran into hundreds of people who had the same problem. They wanted to keep eating the same great food after the CSA boxes stopped coming or the farmer’s market closed down, but they didn’t know how.

One of the things I found as I became more expert at food preservation, and started to spend more time teaching and talking about it is that most of us have a mental image in our heads when we hear “preservation” mentioned. We think about canning, and about our grandmothers standing over a kettle in August, often for days on end. Indeed, when I did interviews they almost always began with someone’s memory of putting by food - and always by canning.

Now canning is a great technique for certain foods, and if it is done right at home, it is both safe and yields a much better tasting product than any industrial scale food could ever offer. And how would it not?  Instead of a company buying a whole orchard’s worth of peaches, all standardized to produce good canning quality but little flavor, shipped for several days after green picking, and then industrially processed, you can take peak-ripe food, often bought very cheaply at the height of the season or grown in your own garden, and process it to your own taste. I do a fair amount of canning, and I enjoy it - in part because I also don’t spend weeks over a hot kettle.

But assuming that canning is the main form of food preservation available to us doesn’t serve us all that well. People who have that mental image of grandma with a hot pressure canner (or worse, the image of an explolding pressure canner - old ones did explode sometimes, but they don’t anymore) immediately leap to the conclusion that storing and preserving food is too much work. Plus, for those of low income there’s the barrier of acquiring equipment, and it takes time to build up a supply of used canning jars - and new ones are pricey.  You either need new lids or better, the reusable ones, but they also can be costly.

Now all of these issues can be overcome - it is possible to shift the season of some canning. For example, I plant my main crop of cucumbers in late June or early July, rather than in May, like my neighbors. This means I’m not making pickles and running the stove in August, but doing it in late September, when the heat of my stove is wanted anyway. By using other food preservation techniques, and only canning when that’s the best way for my family, I get more free time, and cooler. Laying out sweet corn in my solar dehydrator in August means that after a short bit of cutting, I go in and drink iced tea and allow the sun to do my work for me. Preserving food doesn’t have to be hard - although there is some work involved, of course. But as long as we’ve got the assumption that it must be, we won’t experiment.

Moreover, the other reason this bothers me is that canning is a fairly new technique.  It was developed for Napoleon’s army in the early 19th century, so we’ve had canning for less than two centuries. On the other hand, human beings have been putting food by as long as there have been human beings - in cold or dry periods where crops do not grow, and for years of crop failure, drought or disaster, taking the excess of summer and autumn and putting it aside for times to come is one of the most basic and necessary of human activities. While canning is very useful for some things, if human beings couldn’t store up food for dry or cold seasons and eat well without canning, we’d all pretty much be dead. I don’t like to give canning pride of place simply because doing so crowds out the other ways we can preserve food, and our long and deep history of holding summer through the winter or the dry season.

Preserving food is simply too useful a technique to be abandoned because we assume that preservation means “canning.” During high summer, at the produce peak, most farmers have bulk quantities of produce for *vastly* less money than retail prices. The same farmer that sells tomatoes for $2.50 lb may have a bushel for $20 (these are real prices, local to me, your own will vary by location and the season). A bushel of tomatoes will keep you in salsa and sun dried and fresh salad tomatoes for quite a while if you can come up with the $20, and will get you five times as many tomatoes as the same $20 would get you buying retail.

Potatoes in the fall run 70 cents a pound or more here - or 50lbs for $12. It doesn’t take a math genius - and while many smaller families might quail at the thought of using up 50lbs of potatoes, it actually isn’t that hard if you can use the simple technique of natural cold storage (commonly known as root cellaring, although you don’t actually need a cellar, just any place that stays cool and doesn’t freeze - an enclosed porch, spare bedroom closed off from the house, an old fridge or freezer on a porch, a garage, hay bales in a barn). You’ll save a lot of money, trips to the store, and if you don’t eat them all, you can plant them in the spring when they begin to sprout and make more potatoes.

Season extension, natural fermentation, cheesemaking, dehydrating, preserving with sugar, salt or alcohol, natural cool storage - all of these are great ways to store some food. And with some judicious canning, together they make a complex and wonderful diet for the seasons of our lives in which things do not grow. But no one technique is all.

Whenever I do interviews or teach classes, the first thing I do is try to very gently let people know that this isn’t all about canning. Sometimes someone confesses that the thought of pressure canning makes them nervous. What I tell them is this - it is true that pressure canning can involve risk of botulism bacteria. However, so does eating industrially canned food - there’s no magic in the industrial process that precludes this (in fact, there was an outbreak in commercially canned chili just a couple of years ago). If you are attentive and pressure can correctly, there is no reason to be afraid of it.

However, there’s also no need to fetishize canning. Most of the other techniques we have used over the years to store food fell into disfavor, not because the techniques were valueless but because of the excitement generated by canning in the first half of the 20th century. Like baby formula and suburbia, canning was seen as modern, progressive, scientific and clean. And like baby formula and suburbia, things that might, in small quantities have been extremely useful were taken to ridiculous extremes. At the same time we were giving up the breast largely because of our sense that formula was progress, we were also giving up natural cold storage, lactofermentation and drying food.

Canning is a great addition to our repetoir - some things couldn’t be the same without it. But it is only one of many tools. The trick is for us to reclaim what is worthwhile about our past (actually that may be a large chunk of our overarching project, not just our food project) and to put things like canning into perspective - as part, but not the whole of the basic human project of provisioning ourselves.