Monday, November 21, 2011

Storing Food

In her excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that one of the biggest problems for the working poor, when it comes to food and nutrition, is that many of them have no place to store surplus food, even if they can afford to purchase it. I won't disagree. I lived in what can only be described as "transient" housing while I was in the military, and while my situation was significantly different and slightly more stable than someone who lives in a motel room, with regard to storing food, it wasn't much better.

Of course, being who I am, I can't simply accept that as the final answer, and I think, for those who look deeper, there are solutions.

One of my favorite, all-time, television shows, and, indeed, the one that got me started on this path to suburban self-sufficiency and homesteading, is the 1970s BBC classic, Good Neighbors. The story is about a man who reaches his forty-second birthday and, suddenly, realizes that nothing he does is meaningful. He gets up in the morning, goes to his job where he is a (top) designer for the plastic toys that end up in cereal boxes, and then, he comes home at night to his lovely wife, has dinner, and the next morning, wash/ rinse/repeat.

He decides he wants more from his life, and so the show begins.

In one episode Tom (the protagonist) goes fishing with his buddy and next door neighbor, Jerry (the foil - sort of). Tom is fishing for sustenance, and everything he catches will feed him and his wife, Barbara. Jerry is fishing, because it's relaxing and a nice departure from his high-stress job as a corporate executive. Tom has a good day at the pond, and he brings his fish home, where he cleans them, and then, stores them in the freezer (which is powered by a methane digester, which is fueled by pig-waste). Unfortunately, Tom has some mechanical problems with his generator, and his fish is in danger of thawing. So, he runs next door to ask Jerry if he can store his catch in their freezer, but Jerry informs Tom that the grid is down. Thus, the episode ends with rotting fish.

What I loved about that particular episode from my "doomer" perspective was that it was a reminder that dependence on modern, electrified conveniences could be very bad - even if we believe we can power those things ourselves. Tom had his own, home-made methane digester to provide some electricity for his home - specifically, to power the freezer in which they planned to store much of their food (including the pig, who provided the fuel for the digester ;). He believed himself to be independent of the grid, but when his home-made generator failed him, he realized he needed the very thing he'd eschewed on principle.

If he had thought beyond the obvious, Tom would have realized that he had other options - other than freezing the fish, or watching it rot when he couldn't use his neighbor's freezer.

Several weeks ago, my daughters and I went to the Old York Museum, which is a living history museum in southern Maine, where I discovered salt-dried fish. I came home, resolved to try it for myself, and after my successful attempt at salt-drying fish, Deus Ex Machina bought the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning ..., which I have been skimming.

And it got me thinking about people who are living on a very fixed income in very small quarters and who don't have space to store traditionally preserved foods. They don't have a huge freezer (grid-powered or otherwise). They don't have a root cellar, and often not even an extra room that's in a cooler part of the house. They don't have lots of cabinets or a food pantry.

Further, they don't have the cooking facilities to can 2 dozen jars of applesauce.

So, what's the option?

And that's when I had my Aha! moment, when all of the pieces clicked together, and I thought, if I could suggest one thing to people who might be in a position where they needed to have some food stores, but simply did not have the space or the facilities to preserve them, I would tell them to get a food dehydrator.

This year, Deus Ex Machina and I harvested almost 100 lbs of "wild apples." We made cider out of most of them, but they could easily have been peeled, thinly sliced, and put in the food dehydrator.

In the past, we've bought cheap cuts of meat, sliced it very thin, marinated it in a seasoned brine, and then, dehydrated it.

A few years ago, a local farm store had 50 lb bags of potatoes for $15. Yes, that's right. FIFTY pounds of potatoes for FIFTEEN DOLLARS! If I had no way to store or cook 50 lbs of potatoes, a good alternative would be to thinly slice the spuds and dehydrate them. My family and I might get sick of potato soup, but we wouldn't be hungry.

What's funny is that most of us never think about dehydrating our fresh food, but most of us, in this processed food generation, regularly cook with and eat dehydrated foods. Instant potato flakes, "just add boiling water" soups, flavored instant oatmeal ... raisins.

There's nothing mysterious about dehydrating foods, and when it comes to preservation methods, dehydrating can, actually, be the cheapest way to process the food we want to keep. When Deus Ex Machina and I bought our dehydrator over a decade ago, we bought the cheapest model available. It's not a heavy-duty commercial quality, but it does the job, and we paid less than $40 for it. From the bit of sleuthing I did, it looks like similar models are still available at a similar price :).

The food dehydrator Deus Ex Machina and I have is electric, but it takes far less energy - even with the dehydrator running full out for the two days it takes to dry meat - to dry four trays of meat than it does to store it for months in the freezer. The dried meat also takes up less space than an equal amount of fresh meat, and if it's kept in an air-tight container, it will last for months (maybe years) - even through a power outage :).

We use an electric food dehydrator, and for people living in a motel or a small apartment, an electric dehydrator is probably the best answer, but dehydrating food does not require electricity - just so you know.

Unlike canning, which requires monitoring through the whole process, most of the process of dehydrating requires no effort on our part. There was a commercial a few years ago for some "As Seen On TV" Ronco product in which they declared "Set it and Forget it!" That's how preserving food by dehydrating works - for the most part.

Dehydrated food can be rehydrated and cooked, as we all know from our days of eating "just add boiling water" soup packets, but it can also be eaten as is, which makes dehydrating food, probably, one of the best methods of preserving.

As for Tom Good, I wish I could tell him about my salt-dried fish. It was delicious in chowder, and salt-drying or even smoke drying his fish would have saved the all of that food he caught.


  1. Tomatoes, mushrooms… they'll keep for a LONG time in sealed baggies stashed in a cool, dry place. I usually put a silica gel packet (which can be found in most packaged goods these days, especially electronics) in the baggie to absorb any stray moisture. I've dried beef strips (sliced-up leftover steak), but don't trust it to keep that long because I don't salt it.

    Mal*Wart has plastic containers with snap lids, one of the (very) few US-made things they carry these days. That would be a good way to store those bags of dehydrated food without taking up a lot of room, and would be easy to carry to the next motel room or whatever living space becomes available.

  2. You should post how you made the salt-dried fish!

  3. Darius - I actually did post about my experience salt-drying my fish - here ;). It was a fun experiment, and I will do it again ... with a couple of modifications ;).

  4. Funny. I'm sitting in the staffroom reading this before my next class, nibbling at the dehydrated apple slices I bring to work every day to eat at recess!

  5. I dehydrate carrots, tomatoes, jerky, apples, pears, oregano, and my favorite: okra. I've never done potatoes or fish. I'll be checking out your fish recipe.

    I'm pretty fond of my freezer, but if the electric was out long term, I'd cook what I could eat and feed others, dry what I could, I guess compost the veggies, but the majority would be lost. What a waste. They do make a propane freezer, but I'm not there yet.

    brenda from arkansas

  6. I hadn't thought of food storage this way, but as someone with limited storage space (not as limited as it would be in a motel, but still small-ish apartment limitations), I can see the appeal of drying food. I picked up a dehydrator off Craigslist for a few dollars a number of years ago, but it hasn't gotten a lot of use. Maybe it's time to try it out again.

  7. Personally I've always wanted to make a solar dryer. We rec'd an electric dehydrator as a wedding present and that thing always jacked up our electric bill whenever we used it. I freecycled it was just taking up room in my kitchen. Maybe we just had a bum one, but I'm not willing to roll the dice to find out!

  8. We have an Excaliber dehydrator, but the cost of using it to dry things is always a deterrent for me...I would rather put things in jars, because we have the space.

    Wendy have you read "The 100 Mile Diet" book that came out years ago? It was there at the start of the whole eat local movement. Anyhow, there were some comical situations, when the couple on the Diet accessed local food, and then had to store their apartment..I seem to remember reading about potatoes in all the cupboards.. It was a great read:)

    Love your articles, gets us all thinking!

  9. I love my dehydrator. We don't have a lot of storage space (cabinet or freezer), so I enjoy having another method to preserve food. My favorite is hash browns - grate the potatoes, blanch, drain, dehydrate. Easy and quick. I also dry a lot of apples while they are in season - we love them dried. I keep a big jar sitting out on the kitchen counter for snacking.

    Like Kaye, I would love to have a solar dehydrator. Living in Florida, I think it would work really well!

  10. Love your article! I do disagree with the statement about some not having the facilities to can 2 dozen jars of applesauce. I live in a 45 foot shipping container. My kitchen consists of one wall with an 8 foot long counter that contains a 2 burner stove top, a sink and a small space in between. On the opposite of the 8 feet space (3 foot walk way)is a 10 foot long row of metal shelving, 6 feet high. I have been canning all year. If I can do it on a two burner stove top with no counter space, anyone in an apartment or military housing can do it! ;-)

  11. @ Amy - *grin* Your kitchen is about the same size as mine :). No joke! If I measure from the wall to the end of my stove (I have a full-sized stove/oven), it's 9 1/2 feet, and it includes my sink, the stove (as mentioned) and a small counterspace. The walkway is about 4 1/2 feet wide, and on the other side is a pantry cabinet, an upright freezer and a refrigerator. I preserve several dozens of jars of food per year in that small space.

    However, the "military housing" I mentioned was a barracks room. We could have a coffee pot, but no other cooking apparatus was permitted. In fact, I didn't even have a sink in my room. There was a communal bathroom down the hall :). As such, at least in that instance, canning really wasn't an option.

    And in Barbara Ehrenreich's book, the people mentioned aren't living in an apartment. They're living in a motel room, which is pretty close to the same scenario as I had in the military - except they probably have a bathroom.

    But I agree - it's not always a matter of what's possible, but rather what one is willing to do.