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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008 11:03 pm

Stocking up, just in case things go to hell in a handbasket

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The little house was fairly bursting with good food stored away for the long winter. The pantry and the shed and the cellar were full, and so was the attic.

The attic was a lovely place to play. The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and onions dangled overhead. The hams and venison hung in their paper wrappers, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.

When Ma wanted fresh meat for dinner Pa took the ax and cut off a chunk of frozen bear meat or pork. But the sausage balls, or the salt pork, or the smoked hams and the venison, Ma could get for herself from the shed or the attic.

Often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound. But in the attic Laura and Mary played house with the squashes and the pumpkins, and everything was snug and cozy.
— From Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Throughout the Wall Street meltdown and the hand-wringing and finger-pointing and speculation about whether we're headed for a recession or depression, experts have agreed that a crucial factor is psychological: confidence, whether it's consumer confidence, investor confidence, or institutional confidence. So I'm really trying to keep confident. And for the most part, I'm succeeding, not least because a total collapse of the U.S. and global economy and the standard of living we've enjoyed is simply inconceivable. Still, a tiny voice keeps niggling in my head: "What if everything really does go to hell in a handbasket?"

The Wall Street crisis has had a direct impact on our family: my son-in-law, Ben, worked for Lehman's. So far he's still going to the office every day because his division was immediately bought by London's Barclay's Bank, but he's now employed "at will", meaning that either Ben can quit or Barclay's can terminate him at any time without notice. Still, Ben's not too worried: the week after Lehman's failed, he had calls from over 80 headhunters. (Ben is a quantitative analyst with a PhD. in mathematical logic; truthfully, I don't have a glimmer of understanding what he does.)

Thinking of Anne and Ben in their New York apartment has made me realize that my family is far better prepared than most folks to be self-sufficient. At a local foods conference last year, the keynote speakers were Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who went on a Hundred-Mile Diet (eating only food that came from within a 100-mile radius of their home) for a year, and wrote a book, Plenty, about their experience.

The part of their presentation that struck me the most dealt with the loss of food memory — that the connection between where food comes from and how it's grown, stored, preserved and prepared can be lost in just two generations. For many generations, families canned their own vegetables and made their own preserves and condiments. With the advent of cheap and widely available commercial equivalents, the grown children of those families bought those items instead of making them themselves, though they still had the memory of having done it or having seen it done. But the third generation loses even the memory — the realization — that it's possible to do those things themselves, much less have the skills to accomplish them.

The loss of food memory is certainly more widespread today, but most of my contemporaries when I was growing up in the '60s had little, if any, of that memory or experience. Many families had gardens — typically a few tomato and pepper plants and a row or two of sweet corn; but none of my schoolmates' (even the farm kids') families came close to raising and preserving as much of their food as my folks did.

My grandparents lived next door. Raising and preserving much of their own food had been a lifetime habit, especially for my grandfather, who'd grown up on a produce farm. But it was my grandmother, a grocer's daughter, who became passionately committed to health food, organic farming, and natural medicine long before it became trendy, let alone mainstream. And so we raised our own chickens for eggs and meat, and grew and preserved most of our vegetables and fruits.

That was just for starters. My grandfather also raised partridge, quail, pheasant and rabbit. Most of our other meat came from like-minded friends. So did the raw milk from which my grandmother made cottage cheese, and on top of which floated an unbelievably luxurious layer of rich yellow cream.

Shelling peas for the freezer, peeling tomatoes to can, cracking walnuts, collecting eggs and dressing chickens were family activities, and I was expected to participate. As a teenager I thought it was a major drag. As an adult, however, I appreciated both the knowledge I'd gained and the memories of family camaraderie. My husband, Peter, treasures the experience of working with my grandfather during our engagement and in the early years of our marriage, and we tried to give at least some of those experiences to our children.

My youngest daughter, Ashley, took them to heart: this summer, she spent a day making and canning marinara sauce to take to her Chicago apartment. She also expanded her self-sufficiency skills. Lincoln University in New Zealand, where she studied winemaking, is an agricultural college, and her general education requirements included courses in things such as animal husbandry. She learned more than she ever wanted to know about raising and slaughtering sheep, and, outside of class, went hunting with friends.

My neighbor Barbara Lary's upbringing also gave her the skills to raise and preserve food. She grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, and has a beautiful flock of chickens, whose eggs she generously shares with us. Talking recently about "what if," she showed me a book, Preserving The Fruits of the Earth, written by Stanley and Elizabeth Schuler. It discusses methods of preservation, from drying, smoking and curing meat, salting, pickling, freezing and canning, and includes chapters on how to thresh and mill grain, storage, and even how to make wine. The last part of the book is an encyclopedia of foods grown and preserved in the U.S. It really is an encyclopedic list — under 'S' not only commonplace strawberries and salmon are listed, but also Snipe (a bird), Saskatoons (a berry), and Snooks (a fish), each with instructions for preservation.

I also had a book to share, one I'd inherited from my grandmother: Stocking Up. There's some overlap between the two, but while mine lacked the comprehensive listing of foods, it has instructions on making hard, semi-hard, and soft cheeses, small-scale harvesting of grains and seeds, building smokehouses, butchering and even an entire chapter on different ways to make ice cream. Both books were first published in the 1970s — not surprising, given the back-to-the-earth movement popular at the time. Stocking Up is still in print in its third edition; Preserving the Fruits of the Earth can be found used in shops and on Amazon.

So, much as I hope it's not necessary, if everything does go to hell in a handbasket, we should be able to cope relatively well around here. We've got the skills and the resources to produce and preserve our own food. Lary's husband is a retired physician, and her sons are pretty good at basic construction. I've got my grandmother's books on natural medicine, and Peter can handle the dentistry. Now, if we could only get a plumber into the mix. . . .

Like great home cooks everywhere, Lary doesn't use exact measurements for many of her favorite preparations. She's given me jars of her delicious homemade salsa that she cans every year, but when I asked if I could use the recipe for this column, she looked at me blankly: "I don't use a recipe, and I couldn't really give you one, because it varies a lot from year to year depending on what's ripe in the garden. How about my Red Stuff? I don't use a recipe for that either, but it'd be easy to describe. I use it mostly as a side dish, but it's good for lots of other things, too. And it only takes about fifteen minutes to fix."

The name comes from Lary's four boys who asked when little, "Can we have that red stuff for supper?"

RED STUFF

Onions
Red Bell peppers
Olive oil
Tomatoes, fresh or canned
Salt and pepper
Optional flavorings: sliced or minced garlic, fresh basil, oregano, parsley, etc.

Use equal volume of onions and peppers and about twice as many tomatoes. For one medium onion and one pepper, you will need two or three large tomatoes, or about 1 1/2 c. whole or sliced canned tomatoes, drained.

Slice the onion and cut the peppers into strips. Heat a little olive oil over medium high heat in a skillet, and add the onion. Sauté for a few minutes until the onion begins to soften. Add the pepper strips (and garlic, if using) and sauté a few minutes more. Add the tomatoes, cut into chunks if necessary, and any dried herbs. Cook until much of the juice has evaporated from the tomatoes and the peppers and onions are tender, but not so long that they begin to disintegrate. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adding any fresh herbs just before serving.

Besides a vegetable side dish, Lary uses red stuff as a base for pasta sauces, soups, and in dishes such as jambalaya. Though she prefers using fresh peppers, sometimes in winter, she uses frozen peppers.

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