Friday Food Storage Quickie: The Three Sisters

Sharon November 13th, 2009

Hi Folks - The weekly Friday “what to put in your pantry update” is here!  This week, we’re going to focus on the three sisters - corn, squash and beans.  It is a useful mnemonic, I find, to choose items that seem to be related to one another in some way.

The beans are particularly important, because they provide much needed protein.  You can actually use any dry legume - there’s a lot of them.  If you don’t like beans, how about cowpeas, split peas, or lentils.  You can also get canned beans, which are convenient, but mostly come in BPA lined cans, and are comparatively more expensive.  I don’t find cooking beans to be that onerous - in the summer, it is easy to throw them in the solar oven.  In the winter, they can go on the back of the woodstove, or in the crockpot during transitional times.  I prefer dry beans, although I do keep a few canned beans (Eden are expensive but no BPA) around for sudden bean-related emergencies ;-) .

How much to get?  Well, generally speaking you want a 1-3 ratio of beans to grains if they are your primary staple.  Beans are one of those things that are much cheaper per lb if bought in bulk.  Plus there’s less packaging - but if what you can afford is a supermarket package, don’t let that stop you from having enough to eat in a crisis.

What do you do with beans and legumes?  Soups, of course - black bean, red bean, lentil, split pea… Obviously chili.  Dal.  Beans and rice.  Bean dips and spreads.  What’s not to love?  If, btw, you are one of those people who get gas from beans, you might want to throw in a couple of bottles of beano, or start growing epazote, which both help.  Also, generally if you haven’t eaten a lot of legumes, you should add them gradually, rather than all at once.

This time of year, a lot of people are selling winter squash very cheaply, and it is an excellent time to stock up.  Good keeping varieties of winter squash - Pink Banana, Hubbard, Butternut will keep the whole winter at around 50-60 degrees, so in your house in a cool spot.  They do not keep as well at cold temps, so don’t put them in the root cellar.   Most pumpkin varieties don’t keep nearly as well, but pumpkin or squash with lesser keeping qualities can be cooked and dried or canned.

This is also a good time to purchase canned pumpkin, if you are not overly concerned about canned goods.  It is usually on sale now, and over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be focusing on foods that go on sale between now and New Years due to the holidays.  Whether fresh, dried, frozen or canned, the squash or pumpkins provide rich flavor, vitamin A and important nutrition.  If you are dealing with whole ones, don’t forget to eat the delicious seeds as well. 

What can you do with them?  Bake them, add mashed squash and pumpkin to biscuits and baked goods, stuff them, make pies and puddings….yum.

Finally, I’m going to give corn short shrift here, because we already added popcorn to our storage, but if you are just starting now, one form of corn to add would be popcorn.  You might also want to add grits, cornmeal or masa - tortillas, tamales, cornbread, johnny cake and cornmeal mush are part of the traditional foods of our culture.  It goes without saying that if you can get good local dry corn for grinding or making into hominy, that’s the way to go.  If you have to get pre-ground cornmeal, make sure that you rotate it regularly, because it will go rancid - replace every six months.

Also, if you live in a region where sweet corn is still available, now is a great time to cut some off the cob and dehydrate it - mixed with beans it makes a delicious sweet succotash, on its own, a wonderful corn chowder, added to chili or soups it has a great flavor and wonderful texture.

As you are picking up food for your own storage, please don’t forget your local food pantry.  They’d appreciate popcorn, canned beans or bean soups and fresh squash as well to give away in thanksgiving baskets.

As for a non-food item - this is a good time to pick up candles and lamp oil in case of a power outage.  Or, for a more modern option, consider buying cheap outdoor solar lighting - you can pick the sticks out of the ground and set them in buckets or vases around the house for lighting.  Adding even a few sources of light is the difference between safety and comfort and misery and accidents in a power outage.



Want to Come Say Hi?

Sharon November 12th, 2009

On Saturday from 1-4pm, I’m going to be at the Millbrook Winery in Millbrook, NY signing books and chatting with people at the “Sip and Sign for the Holidays” book signing.  There will also be 24 other Hudson Valley region authors there - plus really good food and wine tasting.  So come say hi!


Succession, Human and Wild

Sharon November 12th, 2009

One of the concepts of ecological gardening that I find most useful is the idea of planning for succession in the garden.  This maximizes the use of space and nutrients, and allows you to get the most out of your space as plants mature.  And more than just planning for it, you can hurry it along a bit.

I find this to be a useful concept in gardening - but also in life.  Most of us have to some degree prepared for our own succession under the current model - for example, we save for retirement, we put money aside for college, we move to a neighborhood with good schools even though we haven’t had the baby yet.  In this sense, we are planning for stage of life succession.  But these methods of preparing for succession are, in most cases, weak ones - they depend heavily on sustaining large scale systems that really can’t be counted on.  Much, then, of what we do involves planning for succession - both in the plants we plant, but also in the lives we live.

In its simplest form, ecological succession involves just thinking a little about how plants grow and change - for example, most conventional garden books will advise you, when planting an orchard or a perennial bed, to just put in the plants and wait for them to grow.  But this wastes a lot of time and space if you are talking about woody plants that take years to produce - and in the meantime, you can get more off that land.  Two years after its establishment, for example, I can still plant garlic bulbs in between the asparagus roots in my new asparagus bed - eventually the asparagus will overflow the space, but that time is not yet here.

A simple example of the use of succession came this year for me when I built a new medicinal herb bed.  I planted a large number of sun and soil compatible medicinals, but becaue the perennial plants remained small, I also interplanted them with annual vegetables and herbs - mostly basil, hot peppers and eggplant.   I didn’t harvest quite as much eggplant as I would have in a system where there weren’t other plants, but I made good use of the interstitial spaces between plants, while still allowing space for them to grow.  I also overplanted some of the perennials, particularly medicinals that get harvested for roots after the first full year of growth - next spring, I will dig the roots and the skullcap and feverfew can expand into the spot held by the elecampane.

There are plenty of more complex successions, obviously - the natural ones being the model that I use.  For example, along my creek, what was a mowed grassy area has now, in the 8 years we’ve been here, converted to a brushy mix, and now to sumac and other fast grown trees.  This will be followed by birch, honey locust and willow, and eventually by hardwood trees, in the natural order of things. I’m gently hurrying the process along in my own interests by weeding out around the hickory seedlings that pop up where the nuts fall.   I’m also encouraging my goats to weed out the willow a bit, since we’ve got plenty.

In other spots, I’m making succession happen faster - I’m planting sugar maples, chinese chestnuts and black walnuts  for later use.  This is both a human and ecological process - my maples and nuts are in an area where soil remediation and smaller, quicker growing species provide me with some return now.  But they are also a succession plant in a familial sense - my hope is that climate change will not have advanced so far as to prevent my children from tapping them and profiting from them in 30 years.  I’m thinking ahead - I’ll still be here in 30 years, of course, I hope, but I’m also trying to make the property as productive as possible for my family in the longer term. 

You can use succession to actually prepare a system that doesn’t currently support particular plants - remediating soil with plants is one of the obvious ones.  Fungi and some plants will take up heavy metals, while other fix nitrogen and bring up trace minerals.   For example, I undersow many of my annual vegetables with white clover, which provides a living mulch and a cover crop that really takes off after the annuals are harvested, holding soil, fixing nitrogen and getting ready for the next crop.

But not only is succession a useful concept in making good use of space, but I think it is worth expanding the idea of succession into the larger concept of garden design - just as you think about what happens as your plants grow and age and change and move forward, you can think about yourself in your natural system (your home and land) and how your goals are likely to change over time.

For a couple in their late 50s, for example, garden succession might be a gradual move towards lower maintenence models, and towards more physically accessible gardens - so while now it is perfectly possible for them to hoe a garden set low, they might begin the process of double digging or building up two or three high beds a year, bordered with stone or recycled plastic lumber, to allow them to garden while sitting. 

The same couple may anticipate that as events progress, their grown children and grandchildren might return home - and begin looking at their home as a place that could be subdivided to give everyone private space.

Another couple, young and renting, may expect to move one or several more times before settling down, so their eye to succession may not focus so much on their particular garden, but on establishing relationships in the larger community that will benefit them in the longer term - perhaps they will want to work on expanding the local civic engagement with the food system, or building a network of community gardens.  Certainly, they may want to pick up skills.

If they are living in a community where they have no close family ties, they might think about how developing “chosen family” in their community may be helpful if they choose to have children, or stay in the long term - perhaps they will want to find opportunities to meet people from other stages of life and connect with them, rather than socializing primarily in their own age group, because they are thinking about how their needs will change as they grow.

A family with young children may want to look at their space and their community with an eye to the day when their children need to make some money or learn a skill set.  A single person in their 60s may want to begin looking at combining resources with a young couple or another elder to ensure a measure of security. 

In the end, thinking of life, plant and human, as having a set of logical stages of succession is helpful to me because there’s so much we can do to pave the way for the next thing, the next step, or to speed things along when we haven’t prepared as much as we may want to.


Vandana Shiva on How We The Rich World Can Stop Hurting the Poor World

Sharon November 11th, 2009

I really recommend this video, in which Vandana Shiva articulates how people in the Global North can relieve some of the tremendous ecological pressure on people in the Global South. It is couched in the context of Transition Initiatives, but can just as easily apply to neighborhood or personal level actions.

Generally speaking, if we want to reduce pressure on the world’s poor, these are my recommendations, which I think dovetail with Shivas.  The reality is that if we don’t do these things, people *DIE* - and we are in part responsible for their deaths.  So this should be an imperative.

Do not buy or eat any industrial meat - period.  Grain-fed meat raises the price of commodities in the poor world.  Either give up meat or eat only grass-fed meat.

Do not support biofuel production from foodstuffs or on land that is suitable for growing human crops.

Purchase high value, dry shipped luxury goods like spices, coffee, tea, etc… *only* when certified fair trade and grown in responsible ways (ie, shade grown coffee, etc…) 

Don’t buy imported produce.  Shift your diet to eat what’s available in your locality.  Remember, flying produce around the world is using planes to transport water, effectively.  That’s nuts on a whole host of levels.

Begin shifting your “shadow acres” of imported foods, resources and goods to your own locality - buy local when possible, even if it means buying less.  If you can’t produce something in your area, look for substitutes and work to establish local manufacture and production. 



Sharon November 11th, 2009

I admit, I really kind of enjoy disaster movies.  Don’t get me wrong - I don’t like them because I get to say “see, I told you the end was coming!”  Quite the opposite - I actually like them for their unintentional comic value.  Consider, for example, “The Day After Tomorrow” which took the ridiculous “outrunning the explosion” convention and changed it to “outrunning the temperature change.”  See our plucky heroes race ahead of a wave of unusually cold weather…  good luck with trying to replicate that scene.

Or think about the spate of asteroid movies that hit in the late 1990s.  First there’s the one where we send Bruce Willis to save us from an asteroid.  You don’t actually even need to watch the movie to get the joke - that’s hysterical in itself.  Seriously, Bruce Willis.  

Or consider  “Deep Impact” which has my favorite product placement ever - in several scenes, those fixed to survive the asteroid are packing huge quantities of “Ensure” - you know, that stuff they feed to nursing home patients.  Not dried beans, not actual foods, but heavy cans of the most boring dietary supplement ever.  I could just see the advertising campaign - “When you Want to Survive the Apocalypse, Turn to Ensure!”

Because I think these movies are funny, I admit to kind of wanting to see 2012.  The movie has all the stuff that you want in a ridiculous disaster movie - major icons collapsing on top of people (only Christian ones, apparently), tidal waves, earthquakes, meteors, John Cusack assuring his family that they are absolutely going to make it as they outdrive the meteor strike in an RV….what’s not to love?

Realistically, at the rate I go to movies, I’ll see it on Netflix in the actual 2012.  And I should note that while I don’t necessarily expect life to be normal as we think of it now in 2012, I am approaching December 21, 2022 with precisely the same level of seriousness that I paid to Y2K - zippo. 

Yup, your apocalyptic prophetess of doom is not worried about Mayan Calendars, and I remember flipping on the radio on December 31, 2022 and saying to Eric that it some guy had gotten cash out of a cash machine in Australia, so it probably didn’t matter that we never even got extra cash out, much less bought a year’s supply of anything.  I’m concerned with the gradual degradation of our planet, and with potentially fairly dramatic drops in quality of life - but the end of the actual world I leave to other people to worry about.

In my long-abandoned doctoral dissertation, I explored end of the world fantasies in early modern literature, which arose as responses to the waves of the black death that passed through Europe during the Renaissance.  I wrote about the way that authors from Shakespeare to Mary Shelley extrapolated from the disasters, or perceived sense of disaster,  that surrounded them to feel that the end of the world was at hand.

This is as old a reaction as can be imagined - and as normal.  In Genesis, when the destruction of Sodom drives Lot and his daughters into the surrounding caves, his daughters, traumatized, having lost their mother and sisters, and witnessed the destruction of everything, believe that they and their father are the only people left in the world, and set about the hard practical work of repopulating the earth - incestuously with their father.  I tend to think of this story, appearing as it does right after Noah, as the reminder that sometimes the disaster does strike, but that we’re also supposed to check, maybe even two or three times,  before we leap to the most extreme conclusions. 

I argued in my doctoral work that our fears about depopulation and disaster and  overpopulation and disaster - these are linked to our fantasies about the same subjects, indeed, the two are inextricable.   And in this sense, I see the focus on 2012 as another species of the same - we cannot decide if we are more attracted to the disaster or afraid of it.  On the one hand, we don’t want to face it. Once we have, however, we often allow our fantasies free reign - and the fantasy of an emptied and scoured earth, and, of course, the plucky band of survivors (of which we are always one)  is a lot of fun - if you are going to accept the possibility of disaster, the modulated, gradual, ecological disaster isn’t nearly as much fun as the end of the world, complete with meteors.

I think the increasing obsession with the apocalypse - in literature, in faith, art, in ordinary people’s minds is an expression of a collective sense of wrongness that many people feel but cannot articulate.  There have always been historical periods that were more focused on ends than others, and that focus tends to reflect a sense of things being unsettled, and of vulnerability.  For most people, there is nothing to pin that general sense of unease upon - so they attach it to anything that draws popular attention, whether likely or not.   For this I don’t blame them - many people rightly have the sense we cannot go on as we are now.  What’s wrong is their vision of how it must play out.

To my mind, there’s nothing really wrong with enjoying a romp in the apocalypse - whether in novels (maybe I’ll bring back the post-apocalyptic novel club, actually!), or in film.  What worries me is the degree to which people believe this stuff - that they fail to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Or in which they come to believe that unless there is fire in the sky and collapsing monuments, we’re not in the disaster.  That is, we watch these highly dramaticized fantasies of the end of the world, and think that’s what it looks like, and anything that doesn’t look like a movie disaster film - say, millions more hungry people, millions of refugees,  an increasing and grinding poverty, the wearing down of collective infrastructure, the death of species - that doesn’t count.

It may seem strange for someone who warns about decline and fall to dismiss apocalyptic prophecy - but mostly I do.  I think end-of-the-world fixations operate as substitutes for the reality we face - that the world will go on, slowly, painfully, with ever increasing losses, and perhaps sudden disasters that are not the end of the world, but only the end of lives and places.  And after each one we will look around like Lot’s daughters and ask “did the world end, because it feels like it has?”  But it will not have - we will merely be one more vast loss up in a world of declines.

Every once in a while someone emails to ask me if I’m worried about Mayan Prophecy and 2012, and I’m not.  I probably will see the movie eventually, and add it to my list of comic disaster films.  And then I’ll go home, and try again to make people see that a far less dramatic, but more serious disaster is already underway.


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