Archive for the 'Classes' Category

Is this Hoarding? The Ethics of Storage

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

What is hoarding? If I store food am I hoarding stuff?  Is that bad? 

 These are probably the most common emails I’m getting these days, from nice and smart people who genuinely want to protect themselves and their families, and who also don’t want to do bad things.  So I thought it would be useful to discuss what hoarding is, and what the ethics of food and goods storage actually are.

First, a quiz!

Question 1: If James has a large group of Hummel figurines (those weird looking kids with big eyes in cutesy poses), including some that are very rare and scarce, and he has more Hummel figurines than anyone could possible use or appreciate (for me, that number would be 1 figurine ;-)), will people say James is hoarding Hummel figurines?

Question 2: If Laurie has more money than she needs to pay her expenses, and she takes this extra money, and puts it away where it earns interest and is available to her for future use, even though there are people in the world who could really use that money, will people say she is hoarding money?

Question 3: If Li goes to the grocery store only once every few months, purchases in bulk and in quantities he needs for a year, will people say he is hoarding food?

Question 4: If Gloria knows she is likely to lose her job soon, and takes her kids to the doctor, gets their teeth checked, and gets a 3 months supply of her allergy medication while insurance will still pay for it, is she hoarding medical care?

Question 5: If Gloria knows she will lose her job soon and isn’t confident about finding a new one, and goes to the thrift shop and buys clothes that are available in larger sizes for her oldest son and stores them, so that he’ll have nice clothes for school even if they are quite poor, will people say she is hoarding?

Queston 6: Laurie is also worried about affording clothes for her children.  So she puts as much of her salary aside in a specific account marked for her daughter’s clothing as possible.  Will people say she is hoarding?

Answers: 1. No, James is a collector.  2. No, Laurie is saving. 3. Probably many will. 4. No, people will say she is exercising common sense Question 5. Probably, yes.  Question 6 - No.

I do this simply to point out the fact that we don’t always look at having a lot of something, even more than you need, as a kind of hoarding.  In fact, we look at two different ways of dealing with precisely the same problem - not enough money for clothes - one is perceived as hoarding and the other isn’t.   We also tend to have a very visceral reaction to the idea that we would hold quantities of food or other basic staples - those, we’re supposed to get through the “just in time” delivery system, and any other methodology is really strange to people.   We tend to use the term “hoarding” on anything that seems strange to us.

 Why do we jump to it?  Partly the problem is that most of us don’t understand what hoarding actually is.  Part of the problem is that we’ve been trained (and our training strongly benefits the economic system) that some things are for collecting, saving or preserving and some things aren’t - and we need a language to express our shock and dismay at people who violate the social rules.  And partly the problem is that we are carrying cultural baggage left over from the World Wars, when there was a system of reasonably just allocation in place, and where stockpiling disrupted that system.

First of all, let’s figure out what hoarding actually is, and what can be described with less emotionally laden language as “saving” or “storing.”  Hoarding is an attempt to disrupt an ethical, equitable, reasonably functional system of distribution by claiming widely needed scarce items in greater supply than you need, or than the system can support while maintaining ethical distribution.  In order to have hoarding, you have to have two things.  First, you need a system under which most people can get what they need, regardless of circumstances, and in the face of forseeable consequences - that is, if the system is “just in time delivery to stores” most people have to be able to afford food, or subsidies have to be available, and food has to come into the stores regularly.  If any of those things falls apart, say, if the food stops coming in to stores regularly, the people who buy extra so they’ll have something to eat when the food isn’t there are not hoarding - they are using common practices and saving.

The other thing you need to hoard is scarcity of something necessary, or a conscious attempt to create scarcity.  That is, you can buy up all the beanie babies you want, hoping that they will someday make you rich, but because beanie babies aren’t necessary, this would be not hoarding.  You can buy up all the dandelions you want, and transplant them all into your yard, and that’s not hoarding either, because dandelions aren’t scarce.  You are only hoarding it you take something people really need, that is in short supply, and put it away, not for your own use, but either to manipulate markets or in excess of your ability to use it.  For example, if you buy up 10 years of brown rice in a market that is short of rice, that would be hoarding because you are essentially preventing other people from getting rice, and you can’t possibly eat it before it goes rancid.

Now you could make the case that my own food storage falls in the category of hoarding.  There is, at present, a system that enables people to get food - it is the just in time delivery system and a combination of the growth economy and food stamps (with 1 out of every 11 Americans, and 1 in 7 in Michigan, Washington DC and Ohio -  getting food stamps, it has reached the point where it isn’t just a social welfare program, but a basic way that people get access to food - fundamental to the system) and other social welfare programs.  And I have more food than is required to meet my immediate needs.

The difficulty is that the system I am expected to rely upon won’t work under a range of highly plausible situations - for example, the CDC itself in its avian flu preparations admits that in order to best avoid an epidemic, we need most people to have a large stockpile (12 weeks) of food reserves, because otherwise, the most effective means of controlling infection - avoiding contact with most people - can’t be utilized at all.  It won’t work in an extended Depression, for example, because the rising costs of food and energy are, in fact, already pricing people out of markets for basic commodities.  The US Government once stored commodities to use as food reserves for “safety net” systems like food pantries and for distribution in an emergency - the US no longer has substantial food reserves - they’ve been stripped.  So if there are supply problems, we have no recourse but our own reserves.

Moreover, we aren’t short of food - neither in the US nor the world is there an actual shortage of food.  I’m not buying up something that would otherwise be eaten by someone else - there is more than adequate food around - the problem is the distribution system.  In fact, because it is better to use food as well…food than it is to say, put it in your car, IMHO, people who buy corn and soybeans right now, and create markets for farmers to sell their grains as food grains to are actually doing something quite good.  Most US grains get used either in biofuels or in Confinement livestock production - and both are driving forces of the price rises we’re experiencing. Undermining them by creating viable markets for whole grains that people actually eat is a good thing. 

Equally importantly, storing food is part of human culture.  Just about every region on earth has a period of the year where less stuff grows than others.  Every region on earth has experienced times of food shortfalls, or bad harvests.  All through human history, our culture has grown up around the process of creating a reserve and a safety net to adapt to the fact that food systems are natural systems, not machines.  Human food cultures grew up around food storage and stored foods are essential to those cultures.  If we stop storing food, we are abandoning a large part of our heritage.

Now the danger of lots and lots of people buying food to store is that they will drive prices up. This has happened in some poor countries - when food prices rise and keep rising, people who like to eat buy as much as they can at lower prices, because they are afraid they won’t have any tomorrow.  And this does, in the short term, contribute to price increases.  So we might say that we shouldn’t buy food if the price is increasing.  But the categorical imperative isn’t always the best way to figure out whether something is ethical or not, and it isn’t in this case.  For example, while people buying out cooking oil or rice did raise the price in the short term, the fundamental problem - the thing that drove the prices up so high that people started buying all they could anyway, the thing that most deeply disturbed the system of distribution in the first place, was biofuels.  Instead of taking grains and selling them on markets for food, the not-very-but-more ethical system of distribution we had in place was fundamentally undermined and disrupted when the appetites of cars were treated as equal to the appetites of people.

The truth is that we don’t have an equitable system of distribution, we don’t have a system that can withstand reasonably forseeable shocks, and we don’t have any organic scarcity of food - what we have is a new set of competitors, created by a subsidy system, for people’s need for a resource - a resource that is not, in any objective sense, scarce, but has been made artificially scarce by the introduction of these new, heavily subsidized artificial appetites.  The right response is to remove the subsidies and to create a system in which cars can’t compete with people for food -  it is not to start feeling guilty becuase you want to be able to eat even after you lose your job.

Does that mean there are no ethical grey areas or problems?  Of course there are - this is human life, not a sitcom.  If we are going to store, we have the obligation, if we can afford to be conscious of these issues, to store carefully, not to buy foods that others are experiencing real shortages of if we have any choice, to buy and store foods that are as basic as possible - ie, prioritizing whole grains rather than industrially produced powdered milks and dried meats that reduce the total quantity of food for humans, and most of all to spend our dollars in ways that actually increase the equity, quality and accessibility of the food system.  Just like everything else, storing food has to be done as ethically as possible.  The rules vary depending on your abilities - those who have the money to buy locally and sustainably every time should, those who don’t should do what they can.

The same rules apply to the storage of goods, as well as food.  For example, I buy shoes for my kids to grow into.  I do this for several reasons. The first is that my kids’ feet are going to get bigger no matter what I do, but there are other reasons - environmental health, the saving of used goods from landfills, saving money. The convention, of course is that I should go to the mall when they get bigger and buy the next size up. Of course, that isn’t the most ethical choice - the dollars go to a large corporation, the gas to the mall is a waste, nor is it the best choice for me - I have to make more trips to the mall since I don’t have a supply at home, even if I’d rather be doing something else (and trust me, I would), and I have to spend more money. 

As long as I’ll use the shoes - and I will - there’s no ethical issue with me buying a supply of used shoes at Goodwill.  In fact, I honestly don’t understand why anyone does it any other way - hmmm…cheaper, often barely used or never used, keeps things out of a landfill, subsidizes a charity, don’t have to drive to the mall, saves energy making a new thing…what’s not to like?  But to do this successfully, you pretty much have to store - the thing is, buying used isn’t like going to a department store - you don’t say “I’ll take the green in a size 5″ - in order for me to have a pair of size five shoes, I have to plan ahead, because yard saling is only in spring and summer, and Goodwill gets what it gets - a pair of suitable, high quality size five shoes might not come in for six months - and then I’d have to go buy new.

In fact, it isn’t possible for me to live as I do without storing - I came to this not because I worry about the end of the world, but because my family of 6 has lived, for the last 7 years on between 20 and 40K per year, without any debt but mortgage debt, and while accumulating a reserve of goods, and expanding our farm.  The fact is, there is no way we could live this way - no way we could run the farm, keep the husband’s commute and thus carbon emissions as low as we do, no way we could feel ourselves comfortably well off on that income (which to be fair has hovered closer to 40 for the last few years, but was much, much, much less for a long time before that) without these strategies. 

In order to be sure that I’ll have a clean, nice, high quality, reasonably priced wardrobe, shoes, library, toys for my kids, I plan ahead.  I started buying children’s books for older kids at yard and library sales when my children were babies - because a lot of children’s books are series, and I wanted to have the whole sets.  But used books don’t usually show up as whole sets - they come in bits and pieces, so I knew if I wanted to have a complete set of Narnia or His Dark Materials, I should start hunting earlier - and lo and behold, I now have much of what I want. 

The same is true of clothes and shoes - I buy three sizes ahead, generally speaking.  Some years I get tons of bigger kid clothes in sizes that are just what they are growing into.  Other years, I don’t find much at all - or only things that are much too big. I have reasonable confidence, however, that my kids will keep growing for a good while yet - and some of the things I bought a few years ago that looked crazy too big, now are part of their regular wardrobes.  The reality is that the lifestyle that enables us to live cheaply, the lifestyle that enables us to be as secure as we are, that depends on stockpiling, on planning ahead at many levels - on buying in bulk, on buying used goods when they are available, on looking to future needs.  We don’t do a lot of this in our society, and like all the other basic skills of thrift, they are probably going to be among the most urgent skills out there for us - we may need our guns and ammo far less than we need the ability to stretch soup, look ahead to the future, and make do with what we’ve got.

 Now it is true that I’m also buying stuff because I believe that hard times are coming.  I’m concerned not so much that there won’t be food in the stores, but that my husband might lose his job and I might not be able to buy it. I think it is possible that energy shortages will mean that there will be supply disruptions, but the most likely scenario to me is always this - we become poor.  Our lives start looking more and more (and they already are looking that way for many) like the lives of the world’s poor.  And sometimes the world’s poor experience supply disruptions of things they really need - food, power, energy - because less reliability is a hallmark of poverty.  But more importantly, the economy and energy prices and climate change make it more likely that I’ll be walking by a store thinking, ‘I don’t have enough to afford this thing I need.’  And since I have enough now, and the things we’re talking about are things we waste and throw away all the time, it only makes sense to get them now. 

But this is one of those “Theory of Anyway” things - it makes sense if “the world ends” - or more likely, our world changes, but it makes sense if it doesn’t.  And no, you can’t store your way out of everything - but you don’t have to.  As long as you use your stores and use them wisely, you don’t have to have enough to last you forever.  The truth is that if the present system stops working, a new system will arise - we had shoes and food before peak oil and climate change, and people will make and grow them afterwards.  But there is a transitional period where there might not be enough food for sale, and where no one may be making shoes or distributing them, or where you can’t store them.  And while some of these things are just plain things we may have to get used to living without, it doesn’t hurt anyone to make that a gradual transition, not a rapid one - others, we might have to live without if we don’t store them.  Books, for example, can be copied, or reprinted using very simple technology and renewable energies.  But they can’t be copied if we don’t have them in our communities.

Am I saying everyone should store? No, everyone is different.  Some people are already better suited to a light, migratory lifestyle.  Some people don’t want to the burden, or don’t have the space.  But I do think that for many of us, who are settling in a place and creating a likely refuge for others, storing makes sense for three reasons - the first is that it enables you to spend less and use less energy, which is inherently good.  The second is that it is perfectly normal, in every human society except ours we have stored extra food as a reserve for hard times and seasonal periods where it is necessary, and it is not hoarding to do so.  The third, and perhaps most important reason is that in the absence of a system of fair and equitable distribution, we have no choice but to create those systems - we have to compensate for the failure to maintain a public system.  For some of us, our compensation might be simply the creation of a private reserve, designed to protect our own - and our own could be a broad or narrow category depending on who we call “ours” - maybe immediate family, maybe extended, maybe a whole neighborhood.  But we may also be compensating for the loss of the public sphere - that is, our libraries may be the community library, our store of seeds can be multiplied and spread through our communities, our extra shoes and clothes, when outgrown, can go to the next family in need, to compensate for an overburdened or absent support system.

 Ok, next, living off stored food as a way of life, not as an emergency practice.



Sharon July 17th, 2008

Usually I’m pretty fearless when it comes to the tough topics.  Want to talk about whether you probably should not do as I do, reproductively speaking?  Whether religion has anything good to add to peak oil and climate change discussions?  Why there are mostly white people in the conversation?  Even the most controversial topic I’ve ever gotten into - whether people should use dishwashers or not?  I’m for it - I’m right there diving in.

 But I’m drawing a line in the sand here, folks.  Here is a controversy I’m not willing to touch.  I will not discuss whether Sally Fallon and the Weston-Price folks are the Savior of Mankind or the Anti-Christ.  I just won’t.  For those of you who don’t know, Sally Fallon wrote a book - IMHO, it is a very good and interesting book on nutrition.  In it, she advocates many controversial things, including the fermenting of nearly everything.  This book comes up every time I talk about lacto-fermentation.  Now while I do like this book, I also think it is suffers from a common literary disease, known as “I’m fighting the conventional wisdom syndrome” - that is, when someone decides that they and they alone can overturn the conventional wisdom, they tend to get, umm…polemical, and they tend to try and make the distinctions between them and others very, very blatant - when often the distinctions are simply finer than they would like them to be.  You see, if you are setting yourself up as someone who stands against the tide, you want it to look like the tide only ever goes in one direction.  IMHO, the book is good - but not all the truth that ever was.

Now the thing is, people feel very strongly about this book, and about the Weston-Price Foundation to which Fallon is connected.  They either really love it, and everything about it, or really hate it - and many people who feel very strongly about this book feel that others should feel as strongly as they do.  They feel it quite loudly.  Since I don’t feel nearly as strongly, and this is my blog,  I’m going to play evil censor here, and ask that we contain the whole _Nourishing Traditions_ discussion and its merits and demerits and save it for another day, so that we can concentrate on actual lacto-fermenting.  Because, IMHO, even if you don’t believe everything Fallon says, lactofermented foods taste amazing, they are extremely good for you, and that’s enough reason to add them to your diet.

Lactofermentation is pretty simple - a salt brine is created, strong enough to kill off unwanted bacteria, mild enough to encourage lactic fermentation, which makes things sour and yummy.  It isn’t too picky - fermentation is faster in warm weather, slower in cool, so you want to watch it closely if you do it in the summer time.  Otherwise, easy peasy.  And the food is delicious, and nutritious, and amazing - I can’t say enough good things about most lactofermented foods.  Best of all, they are alive, and contain good enzymes that are good for you - for example, kimchi contains a natural antibiotic specific to e-coli, and so may other lactofermented foods, so these are good to eat with meats. 

My own passion for this stuff comes in part from a real liking for the taste and in part because during each of four pregnancies, I threw up between 20 and 40 times every single day for four straight months.  The category of things I could eat without throwing up was very, very small - and kimchi, sauerkraut and brined pickles were among them each time.  They were one of the few things that made me happy during those 16 months of hell.   I am not the only pregnant woman who could eat these things - they are a classic remedy for morning sickness in many countries.  Thus, they can do no wrong - and have only happy memories associated with them.

Add to this that lactofermentation is the only form of food preservation that actually makes the food more nutritious than if it wasn’t fermented - fermentation makes nutrients available, and foods more digestible, so we get more benefits.  Napa cabbage, made into kimchi, is more nutritious than fresh napa.  Regular cabbage, transformed into sauerkraut has more accessible vitamin C, and is more digestible, and doesn’t cause gas in most people the way regular cabbage does.  There’s really not a downside.

Now you may think you hate all these foods - if you’ve only ever eaten canned sauerkraut, you have no idea how delicious they are.  They also don’t have to be that sour - because these are living foods, you can adjust the sourness to taste.   A lot of my favorite kim chi panchan are very mild, even sweet and tangy.  Others are flaming hot (which I love).  So they are worth experimenting with.

The best books on this subject are Sander Katz’s great _Wild Fermentation_ - he has a website with a bunch of recipes and a lot of info on it here:, Fallon’s book _Nourishing Traditions_ and Linda Zeidrich’s _The Joy of Pickling_.

Ok, here’s the basic project - it works for making fermented (often called kosher-style) pickles, for pickled grape leaves, sauerkraut, kimchi and a host of other good things. You make a brine with some salt and water - kimchi a bit more, pickles a bit less.  For kimchi, I use 3 tablespoons of salt to a quart of water, for pickles 2 tablespoons.  If you are fermenting in warmer weather, a stronger, saltier brine will be useful, if in the cool weather, you can use less.  But it isn’t a very picky process - I’ve used quite little salt too.  But that’s about standard.

Chop up your vegetables (if chopping is called for) and dump them into some kind of non-reactive pot, crock or container.  Make a brine by mixing the salt and water until it is dissolved.  Let the veggies soak overnight if fairly finely chopped, or 48 hours if whole cukes - weight it down with a plastic baggie full of water or a plate covered with a weight - you want minimal to no exposure to air, but enough leakage to let gasses out (this is super important with daikon radishes, because they make explosive gasses - ask me how I know ;-)).  Take the vegetables out, reserving the brine, and then pack them into a container that you plan to use, but now add spices, and flavorings.  Pour enough brine to cover, and leave it in a reasonably cool spot, no higher than 68 degrees, until it tastes like what you want taste. 

 The easiest way to ferment kimchi is after the initial brining, simply to pack the cabbage into jars, leaving a little headspace, add hot peppers, garlic and ginger, a little sugar and put them in mason jars with the rings on very lightly - the gas can get out, much air can get in - but the traditional method is a barrel or a crock with a lid that can be used to press down.  Or the baggie method works fine. 

How long to ferment? Kimchi usually takes about a week, depending on how strong you like it. Pickles can take several weeks, so can sauerkraut.  The key is to keep tasting it.

What’s the downside?  Well the downside is that these are living foods - they don’t keep forever, unless you can keep them very cool (fridge temps) or unless you can them.  And the bad part of canning them is that you kill many of the living organisms that make them so wonderful - and some of the taste.  If you have a fridge, putting them straight in the fridge will let you keep them for months - my kimchi and sauerkraut keep for about four months in my root cellaring space, which averages about 35-45 degrees.  But the foods do get sourer and sourer and stronger and stronger as you go on.   And they are pretty salty.

On the other hand, they are soooo good - stuffed pickled grape leaves, dill  pickles, mustard pickles, kimchi of all sorts, sauerkraut with dried cherries, juniper sauerkraut…ummm….

What do you do with them once you have them?  Well, we like sauerkraut in lots of things - with meats, in eastern-european style pies, etc….  Kimchi we eat in soup, and also stir fry with garlic and tofu or meat.  Pickles we just plain eat - and all four of my kids can keep up even with me.  Grape leaves we stuff.

 Ok, I will post recipes, but I have to do some family stuff first - later, I promise.  In the meantime, check out Katz’s site and this place for great kimchi


Water Bath Canning 101

Sharon July 17th, 2008

Ok, today’s subject will be canning and lactofermentation.  I’ll start with the canning.  Today’s subject is Water Bath Canning, which is different than Pressure Canning - we’ll talk about the latter next week.  I’m going to start from the very beginning here - I know lots of people who read this blog already have a lot of experience on this front, but just in case you don’t, it is worth going over the basics.  The first thing I’m going to say is that I don’t want you to be scared, and I don’t want you not to try this, but I do want you to swear up and down before you do any canning that you will pay attention, read instructions carefully and follow the rules.  Because, even though your Mom always did it this, you really can die from not being careful with canning.  It probably won’t happen - but why mess with it?  Properly done, canning is easy and safe - just do it properly.

Water Bath Canning is the appropriate method for canning *only* high acid foods.  Such foods include pickles, jams, jellies, fruit juices, rhubarb (which is technically a vegetable but so acidic it can be water bath canned) and all-tomato products.  Everything else must be pressure canned.  The reason for this is that the bacteria, clostridium botulinum, that causes botulism, is endemic the soil - it is all over your vegetables and fruits in most cases.  That’s not a problem in an aerobic (there’s plenty of air) environment - your body can handle it just fine (although babies under 1 year sometimes have trouble with it).  But in a warm, anaerobic environment like a canning jar, it goes crazy.  And botulism will kill you and your family - it is not something to mess with.

Now any food with a ph lower than 4.4 (acidic) provides an environment inhospitable to botulism - which is why high acid foods can be safely pressure canned.  But, the thing is, most of us don’t have the chemist’s equipment to confirm acidity - for example, tomatoes can have an acidity level as low as 4.0, or as high as 4.7, if they are overripe or a low acid hybrid. And there are a couple of cases of botulism found in tomato products.  This is why following the instructions of a *RECENT* canning book is essential - any cookbook written before 1994 is not safe to use - that is, you can use the recipe, but you must follow current guidelines for canning - generally speaking, if you aren’t using just fruit and sugar, or pickles, but mixing ingredients, say, in tomato sauce or salsa, you must follow the instructions for the ingredient in the food that requires the longest and most intense processing - that is, if you are making salsa with tomatoes and hot peppers, unless you know the recipe is safe (that is, you have gotten it from a USDA approved, recent book or website that specifically says that it is a combination food that is safe to water bath can, *AND* you have followed instructions exactly, not adding any more ingredients or changing proportions at all).  For tomato products with nothing else in them, add 2 tsp of lemon juice per pint, or 4 per quart, or the same amount of vinegar, to ensure their acidity stays below minimum levels.  This might also be wise if you are canning very overripe fruit. 

Ok, for canning you need a few things.  You need a large pot with a lid - canning kettles with racks are great, but you can use any big pot with a lid, and something to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot so they won’t break - a steamer, a baker’s rack - anything that will lift the jars off the bottom and allow water to circulate.  Ideally, you will also have a canning kit - it comes with a jar lifter (big tongs designed to lift full canning jars), a magnet (for pulling the lids out of boiling water), and a funnel the right size for pouring hot things into canning jars.  You don’t actually need these things - they are merely convenient - but they are really convenient, and nice and cheap, so I recommend them.  You can take the jars out with regular tongs - I have done this.  I’ve also had one splash back and send boiling water at me - your choice.  You can fill the jars without the funnel, but why struggle?  The stuff is also available used at your friendly neighborhood yard sale.

I have never bought a new canning jar - I get them constantly for a buck a box or sometimes $3 for 5 boxes - they are one of those things most people seem to have in their garage.  Put out requests on freecycle or Craigslist, and see what you can find before you buy them.

The only ones that are really considered safe to use are the newer kind, that have two piece, screw on lids.  The old ones with the jar rubbers can technically be used for high acid foods, but they aren’t recommended, can only be used with new rubbers, and I’m not going to explain how to do it here, because there’s a lot of controversy about whether it is safe.  If you have the old zinc lid or wire and rubber canning jars, use them to display stored food, or store dehydrated stuff - don’t can with them.

You also don’t need to buy new rings - as long as the rings aren’t rusted through, and as long as they fit on the jar (often canning jars come with the rings), you can reuse them.  These I occasionally do buy new, as not all jars come with them. 

You need a new lid every time - and jars come in two sizes - regular and wide mouthed.  So you not only need a new lid, but an appropriately sized one.  I buy my canning lids buy the case, because I do a lot of canning - they store for quite some years as long as they are kept cool and dry, and are much cheaper if you can afford to buy them in bulk. 

Now in a real crisis, it is technically possible, although NOT RECOMMENDED to reuse lids that have been carefully pried up and checked to ensure there are no dents or damage to the rubber inside - BUT ONLY ON VERY HIGH ACID FOODS.  I am telling you this because in a real crisis, it might be useful knowledge.  I do not advise it - you do it at your own risk.  At a minimum I would never, ever, ever use it on any low-acid or even borderline food  - pickles and acid fruit jams only.  The best use for used canning lids is for jars of food that you are dehydrating and storing, or for mason jars you fill with beans and grains that aren’t canned.

So what do you do?  Let’s say you want to make raspberry jam.  You would take fresh (you really don’t want to leave your stuff sitting around too long before you can it - off flavors can permeate a whole batch of something) raspberries, add sugar to taste or to meet the requirements of the brand of pectin you are using (we use low sugar pectins only because we find regular ones make a jam that is simply too sweet for us), and follow the instructions for the pectin. 

In the meantime, wash your canning jars and lids carefully, and check the jars for tiny nicks on the top, because that can ruin your seal.  Then submerge the jars in a pot of boiling water that comes up at least 2 inches above the top of the jars.  Bring the water to a boil, and boil the jars.  Meanwhile, boil the lids and rings as well.  When your jam is hot and ready to be ladled in, use the jar lifter to take out the jars, and put them upside down on  a clean dishtowel to drain.  Then flip them, and use a ladle or spoon and the funnel to fill the jars to the recommended headspace.

Headspace is the amount of space between the food and the lid that you need to create a good seal.  Often it is 1 inch, but check the recipe every time, because it may be more.  When the jar is filled to the appropriate level, wipe the rim of the jar with a clean dishcloth to remove any food that might prevent a good seal, put the lid on, put the ring on (not super tightly - enough to hold the lid in place firmly), and use the jar lifter to pu the food in the canning kettle.  Process for the appropriate amount of time listed for the ingredient - jams are usually 15 minutes.  Processing time begins when the water returns to a rolling boil - start timing then. 

When you are done, use the lifter to take the jars out of the boiling water bath, and put them carefully (don’t bang them around) on a clean, dry dishtowel.  You will hear a seal being formed within a few minutes - the sound is “thwuck”.  Some will seal right out of the kettle, others a few minutes later - this is normal.  Allow the food to cool without being disturbed.  When the jars are cool enough to touch, press down on the lid.  If it is suctioned down and has no give, it is sealed.  If you can push down on it and it pops up again, it isn’t.  If it isn’t sealed, you can either reprocess with a new lid for the same amount of time, or you can stick it in the fridge and use that one first.

 You may have been taught to can by someone who did oven canning (jars are baked), inverted the jars to create a seal, or did open kettle canning (poured hot food into jars and put on lids and let them seal themselves) these are not safe - DON’T DO IT!!!!  Neither are weird things like putting an asprin (ugh!) in the jar.  There have been cases of botulism with some of these methods, others could potentially cause botulism.

None of this means, however, that you can’t use Mom’s wonderful pickled beet recipe - you just have to use current techniques to can that old recipe. 

That’s really all there is to water bath canning.  It is very easy, and very convenient, as long as you do it wisely. 


What I Store that Isn’t Food

Sharon July 15th, 2008

Several people have asked me to write about my non-food storage more than I have (there’s a post here on the subject, which includes links to someone else’s recommended list).  This is one of those places where I start looking like a doomer wacko, I realize, but I do think that it is worth talking about.

 Right now, every shipping container that crosses the ocean has the equivalent of a 9% tariff on goods coming in from rising oil costs.  That doesn’t include the cost of the oil in the products itself - it isn’t just food whose price is rising out of the reach of ordinary people.  At the same time as food and gas eat up more of our budgets, it gets harder and harder to buy other stuff.

 Now a lot of us have more stuff than we need - but often, it isn’t the right stuff for a low energy world.  For example, most of us have winter wardrobes that are not designed to live in a house with minimal or no supplemental heating.  And yet, that’s a real possibility in the northern parts of the country this coming year.  Think about - most fuel oil companies have a minimum delivery of 100-150 gallons of oil - otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to run the truck.  Most small companies can’t afford to grant credit anymore, because of the sheer number of people defaulting on payment - and many smaller companies have gone out of business. Natural gas is expected to spike as well, while utilities will be renegotiating their shutoff policies.  Many people won’t be able to afford winter heating bills in the several thousand dollars, particularly advance payments on the order of 5-600 dollars for oil.  So they will switch to small electric space heaters - and grid use will spike as well, during the coldest weather.  We may see blackouts, because of this, but eventually people’s power will get shut off as well, unless mandates against shut offs are strictly enforced.  So many people will be living with minimal or no heat.  They need warm stuff for this - and most of them probably don’t have it, since all buildings have been 70 degrees for most of their lives.

Right now we can all go shopping at Goodwill and garage sales for cheap clothes and shoes - but what happens as more and more people need those cheap goods, and other people stop having the money to buy stuff and dispose of it for pennies on the dollar shortly afterwards - the quality of goods at yard sales will fall, and the competition will rise.  Or think about books - the sheer quantity of books available are a product of an affluent society that can afford to spend $25 bucks on a hardcover.  Sure, a lot of them are junk, but a lot of them aren’t - the library sales are filled with volumes for a quarter.  What happens as the library acquisition budgets are slashed (more) and the cheap books stop running over?  Or, G-d forbid, when the books are worth more to keep warm than to read (ok, there are some books out there that are already worth more for their burnable value, but you know what I mean ;-))

So here’s my list of things I’m storing.  Now I have a big old farmhouse, and some disposable income, so this would be different for other people who don’t.  I’m not saying you need these things - this is me, and my list, offered for your perusal.

1. Shoes - I have a thing about shoes.  You see, I have crappy eyesight, and there is zippo chance I will ever shoot a deer for moccasins.  I’ve made felted boots and slippers, and could put old tires on the bottom of them with some work.  But I don’t want to.  I like good shoes.  And with four boys going through three or four sizes a year, I already can barely afford to keep my kids shod ;-). Goodwill is my friend. Yardsales are my friend.  Bigger sizes while they are cheap are my friend. 

I store extra kids shoes, and also extra boots and shoes for me and the husband. 

2. Blankets!!!!  It is going to be a cold winter for a lot of people.  The thing is, it is perfectly feasible to sleep without supplemental heating - but you need blankets, and lots of them.  Down is lovely, as are wool blankets, but almost anything will work if you layer enough of them.  These are often cheap at yard sales and goodwill.  Since I’m guessing we’re the abode of last resort, I want to have lots of these so that no one is cold.

They are also great to insulate your windows from cold loss, to hang on walls that are drafty, to make rigged “four poster” beds that are kept warm by your body heat and for a host of other reasons.  Blankets are important - sleeping bags are especially great and often show up at my Goodwill.  Other bedding is good if you are expecting a lot of people to come to you. 

3. Yarn - Ok, I don’t need this, but I like it.  Hats, mittens, fingerless gloves and wool socks are, I think, the key to happiness in cold weather, and I really like to knit,.  So I get happiness and warm stuff - this is not bad.  Or maybe this is just an excuse to have yarn ;-).

4. Books - I’m a junkie anyway, so like yarn, this might just be an excuse to buy stuff I like.  But in my case, five miles from a rural library which has a great kids section, but for adult material is better than mine only in the category of biographies of first ladies, biographies of first ladies’ dogs and Romance Novels, my feeling is that I *am* the really local library.  We have a big house, and most of it has books in it - many thousands.  And since I’m a writer, I never know what I’ll want to research next - I’m constantly hauling out random piles of books, looking for some fact or a quote I liked. 

We’re also homeschoolers - and we think the best way to get the kids to read a lot is to read to them and have a lot of books around for them to choose from.  

Yes, we invest in how-to books, but we’re also looking ahead to days when resources are dearer and our older kids may need homeschooling resources - physics textbooks and art history books are as important as how to books.  Novels, of course - the frivolous and the serious.  History books galore.  We buy a lot of books very cheaply - they are so undervalued right now.

5. OTC medications, soap, basic toiletries - I’ll do a seperate post on my medicine cabinet at some point, so I’ll leave these. Most toiletries we don’t bother with, but we do use a few things.  Baking soda can cover a myriad of sins, though.

6. Project materials - you know how you start building something (the bookshelves, the chicken tractor, the fruit press, whatever) or repairing something (the overalls, your bike, the chainsaw) and you suddenly realize you don’t have the parts for it, and you have to go to the store, and put the project aside until you do have the right parts?  Well, some of this is unavoidable - things will break, and you won’t have the part.  Still, some of this is predictable - buttons come off, things need nails and screws, hooks and chains.  There are obvious parts of things that break or frequently need repair, and often these things are cheap.  But as gas gets more expensive, the special trip to the notions store, the hardware store, etc… gets less frequent, and that means putting the needed item away longer.  So having a reserve of these items is useful, and often not very expensive.  Anything that fastens one thing to another, any part that is especially vulnerable, and basic repair kits are high on this list.  And if you have the opportunity to scavenge scrapwood or things that might be usefully taken apart and repurposed, this is good (provided you have space to store these things).

7. Clothes in larger - and smaller - sizes.  Everything I said about shoes goes here too, particularly since I do not like to sew (because it involves ironing and cutting carefully on lines and measuring, all things I loathe ;-)) and am not good at it (for the reasons listed above), I’m all for storing a few sizes up.  I also store a few sizes down, because I have high hopes that peak oil (and self-discipline, if I can stockpile that ;-)) will be good for my weight issues.

8. Intermediate technology tools - think simple things that can run on human power or readily available things.  Oil lamps, manual woodworking tools, treadle sewing machine, etc…  These often show up at auctions, and are useful even if the world doesn’t end and you just want to cut your energy budget.  In some cases the powered replacement is better - powering lights with electricity is less polluting than almost any other form of lighting, except perhaps very local beeswax candles.  But in some cases, they really aren’t.  I like the treadle sewing machine better than the regular one - it is tough and effective, and my dough mixer or my hands much better than a bread machine.  All are worth experimenting with.

9. Extra dishes.  In a crisis, we could expect quite a crowd, depending on where people were coming from.  I like people to have enough to eat, and a chance to eat it at my house.  Dishes are available at every yard sale, often very cheaply.  There are some issues if you keep kosher, as I do, but for most people, cheap dishes are a good deal.  I like to be able to feed a crowd.

10. Bicycles.  People dispose of these frequently, and since I have growing kids, functional, decent bikes are a valuable thing.  There are some older brands that are particularly worth buying - I’ll see if I can dig up a list and post it shortly.

11. Some toilet paper.  Now I think cloth is probably a better solution to any long-term problem.  But toilet paper is one of those niceties, and not everyone I know who might come to my house is cloth-tp ready.  Plus, there are times of illness when you’d rather not use a reusable.  So this is one item I buy in bulk.  I don’t buy a lot of disposable things, but tp we do use.

12. Basic medical care items - again, I’ll do a full list, but in emergencies, hospitals and doctors are often overburdened, and the ability to meet basic medical needs at home - and also to understand when you need a doctor or other professional is, IMHO, important.  

 Other suggestions?


Beans and Rice and Beans and Rice and Beans and….

Sharon July 15th, 2008

In my last post I talked about the fact that the diets common in the rich world *appear* to be very diverse, and that diversity, and the idea of constant “choice” are something we emphasize a lot.  Eating out of food storage, and eating cheaply both seem to constrict our choices dramatically - and thus we may feel deprived.

 Now the truth is that as Michael Pollan showed so well in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ the classic American diet isn’t diverse at all - it is almost all corn based.  Corn is as central to our diet as it was to any Native population - the difference is that the corn is processed into corn syrup, Confinement meat, alcohol and other crap that isn’t good for us.  We really haven’t changed anything - we’re eating corn 3 times a day, just like our ancestors, but we’re eating the worst possible form of corn for us and the planet.  It would not be a loss of diversity to go back to eating corn or some other staple grain more often - and it would be a gain for the planet.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to the idea of eating a varied diet, and eating a lot of staple foods doesn’t necessarily line up with our mental image of what we or our families should be eating.  In fact, it is pretty much precisely what we should be eating - we’ve seen this several times.  There’s the Western Diet Paradox, in which immigrants from cultures with staple style diets made up of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes and small amounts of meat become less healthy and have shortened lifespans when they move to the US, and start eating a typical American diet.  Or there’s the research from WWII, which showed that the British got healthier during periods of restriction in which they were eating more grains, and fewer meats, fats and sweets. 

But the stigma of “poor people’s food” of reduced “choice” (which often isn’t any kind of meaningful choice) is huge, and we’ve got to overcome it.  That means making the staple diet a badge of honor, talking about it, enjoying it, and integrating it into the culture as a source of pleasure.  The thing is, food trends are fairly easy to start and move - and they can be really powerful.  All of us have the potential to change the culture’s relationship with inexpensive, basic staple foods, simply by cooking them well, eating them enthusiastically, serving them to guests.  The words you want to hear are “I never knew lentil soup/beans and rice/whatever could be so delicious.”

And that means learning to cook inexpensive foods well, and to create a varied diet using basic ingredients.  Which means you need recipes and ideas. 

Which brings me to the point - first, here’s my own stuff:

There are some ideas for meal planning here at my friend Pat’s blog:,

Not so much a rice and beans thing, Hillbilly Housewife has some recipes for very low cost family menus - $70 for a week (although some prices have risen since then).  There are also links to even cheaper ones, but from an older period. There are some foods I simply don’t recommend - margarine, for example, but the price qualities are good, and they are “typical American” but cheap, which is nice and accessible to a lot of people:  She also includes a schedule, which is great.  Hers is a great site, btw - particularly for those who are new to frugal food.

There are a gazillion bean recipes on this site: , and tons of ethnic bean and grain recipes here: 

For cookbooks, here are a few of my favorites - some of which I’ve mentioned before on the blog, and some of which I haven’t.

 1. The More With Less Cookbook (and its several sequels) by Doris Janzen Longacre has a lot of simple, staple food recipes that are wonderful and delicious - if I had to choose only a couple of basic cookbooks, this one and its sequels (including the wonderful children’s cookbook, Simply in Season (there’s an adult one of the same name) would be the start of a library.  We eat their Apple-Cinnamon Crunch as a snack regularly, or mix it into yogurt, and it was where I got the idea of serving not-too-sweet rice pudding for breakfast.

2. Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman’s _Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook_ is really a cookbook of the whole former Soviet Union.  And while it has plenty of meat recipes, it emphasizes the staple foods of Eastern Europe - lots of roots, whole grains and very simple, inexpensive foods.  The recipes are delicious as well.  I lived on cabbage pie (which is really bad for you but spectacularly delicious), lentil and dried apricot soup, and pumpkin fritters in college, and they are still part of our regular food rotation.  Great borscht, too.

3. Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables by Georgeanne Brennan - Brennan is one of my absolute favorite food writers (among other things, she’s the author of my son’s favorite cookbook, The Dr. Seuss Cookbook).  Rutabaga and barley soup, deep dish turnip gratin, green onion and gruyere bread pudding and salsify fritters are all favorites of my family.

 4. Paula Wolfert’s book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_ is one of my favorite all-time cookbooks.  It was from her I learned the easy way of making polenta without all the stirring (it works on American style mush as well).  Eric and I eat pasta with bitter greens and tomatoes all summer long, particularly as the greens start to bolt, and my favorite bean and grain soup ever is her Greek-style medly of lentils, herbs and grains.  Spiced barley bread is also one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, especially dipped in Harira.

5. Lane Morgan is the author of _The Winter Harvest Cookbook_ which I discovered through Carla Emery.  The emphasis is on foods available in the Pacific NW in the winter, which means, roots, beans and greens.  Very nice recipes - how many other cookbooks have more than a dozen parsnip recipes, or seven for daikons?  My kids love her teriyaki beets (me too)  and we like her broccoli dal as well.

6. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s _Seductions of Rice_ cookbook is fascinating and wonderful.  It explores authentic rice recipes (and foods served over rice) from all over the world - their “Flatbreads and Flavors” did the same for wheat and flat breads of other sorts.  The risotto al birra, which sounds weird (risotto with beer) is spectacular.  We eat beef and lettuce congee anytime we can get it, and we make khao ped (Thai fried rice) all the time.  Yum.

7.  All the Moosewood Cookbooks are good, of course, but for diversity of staple food recipes _Sundays at the Moosewood_ which focuses on their Sunday ethnic days, is probably the best.  Some of the sections are better than others - the sections on Japan and Finland are good, others not quite as much.  And generally, IMHO, the recipes need more seasoning.  But they are still good.  We make their sweet potato paratha quite often, and the tomato, lime and tortilla soup is a summer staple. 

8. Crescent Dragonwagon’s _Soup and Bread Cookbook_ is one I’ve mentioned before, but it has the remarkable utility of offering ways to make just about everything (I mean everything - she has a section on nut soups!)  into soup.  The recipes are great - flavorful and accessible, and she’s a fun writer.  I have no southern credentials at all, but I like her Green Gumbo a lot, and the Broccoli and Potato Curry soup is a winter staple here, as is her Split Pea Soup with Caraway. 

9. I think I’ve praised Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s _From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking_ before, but I’m going to do it again, because it is so damned good.  I’ve never made a bad recipe from this cookbook.  The sizzling rice soup is incredible, and the many congee recipes (did I mention congee before - we love the stuff!) are wonderful.  Lima beans with soybean cake sounds beyond weird and is terrific, and lemon noodles with mushrooms are spectacular!  I don’t think I can say enough good things about this cookbook.

10. Finally, _Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations_ by Lois Ellen Frank has a fair share of foofy recipes for people with lots of money, but also a ton of great recipes for staple foods, southwestern style.  The posole is great even without the meat, and in the fall, we eat sunflower cakes as a snack or as a breakfast.  I wish I lived where I could try the recipe for tumbleweed shoots with pinto beans and wild rice, but we make pumpkin corn soup often. 

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